NASA’s InSight lander lifts off Saturday, May 5 from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, and the world will undoubtedly be watching, for good reason. It’s basically a cat that will sit on Mars for the next few years, conducting some very important research, as all kitties are wont to do.
While InSight isn’t a rover like Curiosity or some of NASA’s more dog-like creations, it’ll have an important task ahead: studying Marsquakes and uncovering mysteries about the red planet’s past. Over the course of two years, the lander will use its instruments to study Mars’ interior, which could also provide clues about the way terrestrial planets form. Besides, Mars is basically a giant litterbox, so InSight should feel right at home.
“InSight will be the first mission to another planet to leave Earth from Vandenberg Air Force Base,” NASA writes on its website. “Missions to other planets normally launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and fly east, over water. That’s because launching towards the east adds the momentum of Earth’s eastward rotation to the launch vehicle’s own thrust. But the Atlas V-401 is powerful enough to fly south towards the sea from Vandenberg Air Force Base.”
The lander’s big launch has unfortunately faced significant delays. Rumors of technical difficulties pushed the launch back two years, which was disappointing, but when have cats ever cared about humans’ concepts of time?
Once the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V-401 lifts it out of our atmosphere, InSight will have a six-month-long trip to Mars. According to NASA, the lander’s flight will span roughly 301 million miles (485 million kilometers). In the grand scheme of space and time, that’s not terribly long. It’s expected to reach Mars on November 26, 2018.
Though InSight will no doubt be sending back all kinds of cool data about Mars’s interior, that’s not all the lander has to offer. This is an important stepping stone for NASA’s next mission, a rover that will leave Earth in 2020. Recently, engineers on the project announced that the spacecraft’s heat shield had cracked during testing, so hopefully, things get better for the rover from here on out.
Sure, InSight isn’t going to roam around Mars like its rover buddies. But it’ll still be doing very important things, much in the same way a cat knocks over everything you own just to be sure gravity still exists.