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Mission to Mars takes off

A robotic geologist armed with a hammer and a quake monitor rocketed toward Mars on Saturday, aiming to land on the red planet and explore its mysterious insides.The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) launched the Mars InSight lander from California rather than Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was the first interplanetary mission ever to depart from the US West Coast, drawing pre-dawn crowds to Vandenberg Air Force Base and rocket watchers all along the California coast.The spacecraft will take more than six months to cover the 485 million kilometres to Mars and start its unprecedented geologic excavations. InSight will dig deeper into Mars than ever before — nearly 5 metres — to take the planet’s temperature. It will also attempt to make the first measurements of quakes, using a high-tech seismometer placed directly on the Martian surface. Also aboard the Atlas V rocket were a pair of mini satellites, or CubeSats, meant to trail InSight all the way to Mars in a first-of-its-kind technology demonstration.The $1-billion mission involves scientists from the US, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. “I can’t describe to you in words how very excited I am … to go off to Mars,” said project manager Tom Hoffman from the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “It’s going to be awesome.” Nasa hasn’t put a spacecraft down on Mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The US is the only country to successfully land and operate a spacecraft at Mars. It’s tough, complicated stuff. Only about 40% of all missions to Mars from all countries — orbiters and landers alike — have proved successful over the decades. If all goes well, the three-legged InSight will descend by parachute and engine firings onto a flat equatorial region of Mars — believed to be free of big, potentially dangerous rocks — on Nov 26. Once down, it will stay put, using a mechanical arm to place its instruments on the surface. “This mission will probe the interior of another terrestrial planet, giving us an idea of the size of the core, the mantle, the crust and our ability then to compare that with the Earth,” said Nasa chief scientist Jim Green. “This is of fundamental importance to understand the origin of our solar system and how it became the way it is today.” InSight’s chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt of the JPL, said Mars is ideal for learning how the rocky planets of our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Unlike our active Earth, Mars has not been transformed by plate tectonics and other processes, he noted. Over the course of two Earth years — or one Martian year — scientists expect InSight’s three main experiments to provide a true 3D image of Mars. The lander is equipped with a seismometer for measuring marsquakes, a self-hammering probe for burrowing beneath the surface, and a radio system for tracking the spacecraft’s position and the planet’s wobbly rotation, thereby revealing the size and composition of the Martian core. “InSight, for seismologists, will really be a new page of history,” said Philippe Lognonne of the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, lead scientist of the InSight seismometer. Problems with the French-supplied seismometer kept InSight from launching two years ago.

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