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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 6:21 am | Fair 44º


Mars Mission Atlas V Rocket, InSight Spacecraft Cleared For Launch From Vandenberg Air Force Base

Weather forecast of low visibility could cause delay for planned liftoff at 4:05 a.m. Saturday

Atlas V rocket at Vandenberg Click to view larger
At Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the gantry is rolled back on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V so crews can finish stacking the booster and mate the nosecone with the InSight spacecraft tucked inside on the rocket. (Randy Beaudoin / NASA photo)

The Atlas V rocket is ready. So is NASA's InSight spacecraft. But it remains to be seen whether the marine layer will hamper those hoping to watch Vandenberg Air Force Base’s first mission to Mars.

The launch weather officer has called for a 80-percent likelihood conditions will force the team to scrub attempts for the United Launch Alliance rocket's departure, but officials later called that a worst-case scenario and explained it might not be quite that gloomy.

Liftoff is planned for 4:05 a.m. Saturday, but the team has until 6:05 a.m. for this mission to occur before being forced to try again another day.

Concerns center on launch visibility with the same worry also in place for a possible Sunday attempt, according to 1st Lt. Kristina Williams, weather officer for the 30th Space Wing.

“We are expecting visibility to be bad,” she said.

Visibility is expected to be 1/2-mile to 1 mile due to a shallow marine layer at the launch pad.

“It does not necessarily mean we won’t launch because of weather,” she said. 

The launch forecast focuses on range-safety constraints that can lead to departure delays. Other constraints, such winds or lightning, have zero likelihood of interfering with this launch, she said.

InSight Mars lander Click to view larger
In the Astrotech facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, technicians and engineers place the heatshield on NASA’s Insight Mars lander before encapsulation in its payload fairing. InSight will be the first mission to look deep beneath the Martian surface. (Aaron Taubman / USAF 30th Space Wing photo)

A number of sensors and telemetry monitor a rocket before and during flight. A failure of a key piece of equipment could make visibility a firm requirement for safety reasons, Col. Michael Hough said.

“There’s nothing else getting in the way of this launch so we are clean from that standpoint,” he added. 

Longtime launch watchers know a simple hole in the clouds can provide the needed opportunity to watch a rocket’s departure or that a clear view can be spoiled at the last minute by the marine layer moving to interfere.

Additionally, a marine layer hugging the coastline may not interfere with spectators staked out at inland locations.

InSight — it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is expected to separate from the rocket approximately 90 minutes after launch.

Insight Mars lander Click to view larger
The InSight Mars lander arrives at Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.  (Leif Heimbold / USAF 30th Space Wing photo)

This mission also includes two tiny technology experiment satellites called Mars Cube One or MarCo, each the size of a cereal box and marking the first CubeSats in deep space.

This week, mission managers have conducted their final reviews to clear the way for the launch to proceed and held a final countdown dress rehearsal. 

“We are go for launch,”  an enthusiastic Tim Dunn, NASA launch manager, said Thursday afternoon.“Yes we are.”

The team is expected to begin the countdown Friday with retraction of the mobile service tower from its place sheltering the rocket at Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base, set to begin at 11:30 p.m. Friday.

Due to orbital mechanics, InSight must launch by June 8 or wait 26 months for the next opportunity to head to Mars, NASA officials said.

Early Saturday morning, a large number of spectators is expected with two off-base viewing sites set up for crowds — at the Lompoc City Airport at 1801 North H St., with parking off O Street; and St. Mary's Episcopal Church parking lot at 2800 Harris Grade Road.

Guests should arrive after 2:30 a.m. and InSight team representatives will be available to answer questions, city officials said.

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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