With large crowds staked out around the Lompoc Valley for the historic but foggy moment, an Atlas V rocket roared away from Vandenberg Air Force Base as NASA’s newest Mars lander mission begins its journey to the Red Planet.
The United Launch Alliance rocket blasted off at 4:05 a.m. Saturday from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base. A heavy marine layer that hovered over the Lompoc Valley did not even grant enthusiastic spectators a chance to see an orange glow as the rocket departed.
Brian Bone, flight systems engineer for InSight at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a UCSB mechanical engineering graduate who has spent six years on the program, said he was excited to see the mission underway.
“It’s been a long time coming." Bone said. "We’ve worked incredibly hard on this mission and to hear it go today and be on its way to Mars … it’s amazing to know it’s finally going to be making it’s journey we’ve been working so hard for.”
While Vandenberg has launched approximately 2,000 rockets and missiles in six decades, the West Coast’s first interplanetary mission attracted more attention than normal.
Nearly 200 media members were accredited and the city of Lompoc hosted two public viewing sites for viewers, with between 3,500 and 4,000 people gathered at the Lompoc Airport.
"We were fortunate to have a great turnout at our Lompoc Airport for this historic Insight Mission to Mars launch,” said Lompoc city spokeswoman Samantha Scroggin. “It was an honor for the city's airport to be the official launch viewing site. Although visibility ended up being minimal from the airport because of fog, we could certainly hear the launch, and the excitement from the crowd was palpable."
Hundreds of guests also were positioned around Vandenberg.
“Most beautiful launch I’ve ever heard,” one woman said.
Aboard Atlas was the spacecraft dubbed InSight, for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, which sports solar arrays crafted by Orbital ATK-Goleta.
A pair of tiny satellites, known as Mars Cube One, or MarCO, also hitched a ride en route to conducting a technology demonstration mission scientists hope will pay off with real-time communication while InSight descends and touches down on the Red Planet.
Separation of the InSight spacecraft, which was built by Lockheed Martin Corp., and the two MarCO satellites occurred approximately 90 minutes after the booster’s blastoff, ground controllers confirmed.
"I'm on my own now," the InSight Twitter page said.
InSight will spend more than six months cruising toward Mars with plans for landing at noon Nov. 26. During the descent, InSight will travel from a speed of 12,500 mph down to 5 mph within 6 1/2 minutes.
"We’re glad to see InSight is flying free,' said Jim Spink, an Orbital ATK-Goleta project manager. "And now we await the real test when our UltraFlex solar arrays are deployed immediately after touchdown. We’re really looking forward to seeing them deployed and producing power on the surface of Mars."
The InSight mission is expected to gather science for one Mars year — 26 months for Earthlings.
JPL employee Bone will remain on the project team through InSight's operations.
“I am hoping that I’m the highest paid person on the project to do nothing because I am the anomaly lead for operations,” Bone added.
After landing on Mars and staying in one location, InSight will conduct what NASA officials called a health exam for the Red Planet, using a seismometer to detect mars quakes for one experiment.
“This is really the heart of the InSight mission. The seismometer is what allows us to see deep into the planet to have insight into the planet and it uses the seismic waves generated by marsquakes,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.
Additionally, a heat probe, or mole, will dig deep into the planet’s interior to collect temperature data.
Information gleaned about Mars will provide details about how rocky planets, such as Earth, form, he added.
InSight is one of two NASA missions set to launch from Vandenberg this month.
At 1:04 p.m. May 19, a pair of twin satellites, NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO), will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket that also will carry five more Iridium Next commercial communication satellites into orbit from Space Launch Complex-4.