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Mars lander to launch from California on Atlas 5 in 2016

Posted: December 19, 2013

NASA's InSight lander will launch to Mars in March 2016 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, officials announced Thursday.

Photo of an Atlas 5 rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
The launch will mark the first interplanetary mission to lift off from America's West Coast space base about 140 miles northwest of Los Angeles. InSight will take off from Space Launch Complex 3-East at Vandenberg, the West Coast home of ULA's Atlas 5 rocket.

"We could not be more honored that NASA has selected ULA to launch the InSight mission, which will be landing on the surface of Mars," said Jim Sponnick, ULA's vice president of Atlas and Delta programs. "This mission will be the eighth mission to Mars that ULA vehicles have launched since 2001, including Mars Science Lab and most recently MAVEN."

According to NASA, the total cost for the launch of InSight is approximately $160 million, including spacecraft processing, payload integration, tracking, data and telemetry and other launch support requirements.

The Atlas 5 rocket for InSight will launch in the "401" configuration with a four-meter payload fairing, no solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

All of NASA's probes to other planets have launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., but the specifics of the InSight spacecraft gave officials flexibility in choosing the launch site, according to mission managers.

The InSight spacecraft is based on the Phoenix lander launched to the red planet in 2007. Phoenix was sized to fly on the smaller Delta 2 rocket, meaning an Atlas 5 has plenty of power to dispatch InSight to Mars from Florida or California.

Vandenberg typically hosts launches with Earth observation payloads heading for polar orbits.

"With 42 successful missions spanning more than a decade of operational service, the commercially developed Atlas 5 has the performance capability and the reliability required for this high-value NASA mission," Sponnick said in a statement.

NASA has considered launching Mars missions from California in the past. The agency's Mars Odyssey mission launched in 2001 was initially assigned to lift off from Vandenberg before its launch site was switched to Cape Canaveral.

Artist's concept of the InSight lander with its seismometer and heat probe drill deployed on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Atlas 5 launch manifest in Florida is busier than in California, so the selection of Vandenberg as InSight's launch base may reduce impacts to other ULA missions.

The three-legged InSight lander, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., will set down on Mars in September 2016, starting a surface mission expected to last at least two years.

The InSight mission will deploy a seismometer to make the first direct measurements of Mars quakes. The lander will also employ a hammering drill to burrow up to 15 feet underground, taking temperature readings to measure heat changes at different layers immediately beneath the Martian surface.

The French space agency, CNES, is providing InSight's $42 million seismometer. Germany is funding the lander's underground heat probe.

Scientists will also analyze radio signals bouncing between Earth and the InSight spacecraft, detecting tiny wobbles in the red planet's rotation, revealing properties of the Martian core.

All the investigations have the objective of telling scientists about the interior of Mars.

Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said researchers can take that information a step further, comparing InSight's findings with what is known about Earth and the moon to paint a clearer picture of how the solar system's rocky planets formed and cooled.

InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

NASA selected InSight in August 2012 as the next mission in the agency's Discovery program, which funds planetary exploration missions on relatively low budgets.

According to Banerdt, InSight's cost is projected to be approximately $480 million, excluding launch services and contributions from international partners in France and Germany.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.