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NASA’s Mars Mission Marching Toward May Liftoff at Vandenberg Air Force Base

Delayed from 2016, InSight aiming for next available window of interplanetary geometry to send mission into space


After time off due to a design flaw and celestial mechanics, a spacecraft set to be Vandenberg Air Force Base’s first mission to Mars again is moving toward blastoff.

The InSight mission — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is scheduled to launch in May. It will be the only interplanetary launch in six decades from the Central Coast installation known for low-Earth satellite missions and unarmed missile tests.

This summer, employees of Lockheed Martin Space Systems assembled and tested the InSight spacecraft in a clean-room facility near Denver, company officials said.

“Our team resumed system-level integration and test activities last month,” said Stu Spath, spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin.

“The lander is completed and instruments have been integrated onto it so that we can complete the final spacecraft testing, including acoustics, instrument deployments and thermal balance tests.”

NASA suspended the mission to Mars in 2015 due to a glitch involving the spacecraft’s primary instrument, announcing the decision after the craft landed in Vandenberg in preparation for launch. The time needed to make fixes meant the mission would miss the window of opportunity for getting to Mars.

As a result of planetary geometry, Mars launch opportunities occur about 26 months apart and last only a few weeks.

The spacecraft is scheduled to ride a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-3.

InSight is the first mission to focus on examining the deep interior of Mars, with scientists hopeful that its gathers information to boost understanding about how all rocky planets formed, including Earth.

“Because the interior of Mars has churned much less than Earth’s in the past 3 billion years, Mars likely preserves evidence about rocky planets’ infancy better than our home planet does,” said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Banerdt leads the international team that proposed the mission and won NASA selection in a competition with 27 other proposals for missions throughout the solar system.

Whichever day the mission launches during a five-week period beginning May 5, navigators have charted the flight to reach Mars the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2018.

The mission calls for placing a stationary lander, boasting two solar panels that unfold like paper fans, near Mars’ equator.

Within weeks after landing InSight will use a robotic arm to place its two main instruments directly and permanently onto the Martian ground, an unprecedented set of activities on the Red Planet.

A third experiment will use radio transmissions between Mars and Earth to assess perturbations, or disturbance, in how Mars rotates on its axis, which scientists say are clues about the size of the planet’s core.

In addition the satellite frame, the spacecraft’s science payload also is on track for next year’s launch.

The mission’s launch was originally planned for March 2016, but was called off months earlier due to a leak into a metal container designed to maintain near-vacuum conditions around the seismometer’s main sensors. At the time, it wasn’t certain if the mission would still get a chance to fly.

InSight now has a redesigned vacuum vessel for the instrument with that new component successfully tested, then combined with the instrument’s other components and tested again, officials said.

The full seismometer instrument was delivered to the Lockheed Martin spacecraft assembly facility in Littleton, Colo., in July and has been installed on the lander, officials said.

The flaw meant InSight had to miss the limited window for reaching Mars — and wait months for the next shot.

“We have fixed the problem we had two years ago, and we are eagerly preparing for launch,” said Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight’s project manager.

Together with two active NASA Mars rovers, three NASA Mars orbiters and a Mars rover being built for launch in 2020, InSight is part of the fleet of unmanned spacecraft helping to lay the groundwork for sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

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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