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Mars InSight Lander Back at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Final Preparations for May Launch

After arriving from Colorado, spacecraft undergoing series of readiness tests ahead of planned mission aboard Atlas V rocket

InSight, a Mars explorer, is loaded aboard a military transport plane in Colorado for its trip to Vandenberg Air Force Base. At VAFB, the spacecraft is undergoing final preparations and testing ahead of a planned May launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. Click to view larger
InSight, a Mars explorer, is loaded aboard a military transport plane in Colorado for its trip to Vandenberg Air Force Base. At VAFB, the spacecraft is undergoing final preparations and testing ahead of a planned May launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin photo)

NASA’s next Mars explorer began its long journey to the Red Planet with a short trek to Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The spacecraft arrived Wednesday after an airplane trip from Lockheed Martin Space in Denver.

For the next several weeks, the spacecraft will undergo final preparations in anticipation of its May 5 launch aboard an Atlas V rocket set to blast off from Space Launch Complex-3. The launch window extends from 4:05 a.m. through 6:05 a.m.

“The Air Force C-17 crew from the 21st Airlift Squadron gave us a great ride,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, referring to the USAF mobility support wing at Travis Air Force Base in the Bay Area.

“Next time InSight travels as high and as fast, it will be about 23 seconds into its launch — on the way to Mars.”

The launch period for InSight — officially the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — opens May 5 and continues through June 8.

Because of orbital mechanics, the unmanned mission has a small window every 26 months to reach Mars.

Along with being Vandenberg’s first interplanetary mission, InSight will be the first mission to look deep beneath the Martian surface, studying the planet’s interior by listening for “marsquakes” and measuring the planet’s heat output.

At Vandenberg’s Astrotech payload processing facility, crews will remove InSight from its shipping container and later perform functional testing to verify the craft’s health after the flight from Colorado.

The team also will load updated flight software and perform a series of mission readiness tests to check out the entire spacecraft flight system, science instruments and the ground data system.

“One of the most important activities before launch is to load the spacecraft with the fuel needed for the journey to Mars,” Hoffman said.

“After fuel loading, the spacecraft will undergo a spin-balance test to determine precisely the center of mass. This knowledge is needed to be sure the entry and descent into the Mars atmosphere goes as planned.”

This isn’t InSight’s first trip to Vandenberg. It landed at Vandenberg in December 2015 in anticipation of a March 2016 blastoff. Days later, however, officials decided to suspend the mission because of flaws with InSight prime science instrument. The delay meant missing a top opportunity for heading to Mars and awaiting the 2018 attempt.

The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver.

A key component, InSight’s solar arrays, have their roots in Santa Barbara County, where they were designed and built by Orbital ATK in Goleta.

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’ Études Spatiales and the German Aerospace Center, are supporting the InSight mission.

While this will be Vandenberg’s first interplanetary mission since it began launching missiles and rockets 60 years ago, the base previously conducted a lunar mission when the Clementine craft was sent to orbit the moon before exploring a near-Earth asteroid in 1994.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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