An Atlas 5 rocket is poised to launch from California on Saturday to send a robotic lander to Mars.

If all goes well, the two-stage Atlas V 401 will lift off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday morning. Onboard will be a lander named InSight, an $813.8 million mission to study the interior of the Red Planet.

The lander’s main mission is to check for quakes beneath Mars’ surface, which will help us learn how our solar system was created and lay the groundwork for similar exploration of potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe.

Although Earth and Mars are generally formed of the same material, scientists want to know why the two planets ended up different. In addition to science experiments, the lander also carries two tiny silicon wafers engraved with the names of 2.4 million people who signed up via a public awareness campaign.

“As seismic waves travel through Mars they pick up information along the way; as they travel through different rocks,” explained Dr Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator. “And all those wiggles you see on seismograms – scientists understand how to pull that information out. After we’ve gotten many, many Marsquakes from different directions, we can put together a three dimensional view of the inside of Mars.”

Since 1964, the United States has launched 22 robotic spacecraft to Mars at a cost of more than $20 billion in an evolving campaign to map out the red planet’s surface, determine the role of water in its history and to search for signs of past habitability and the organic building blocks of life.

InSight is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in on California’s Central Coast as early as 4:05 a.m. Pacific time Saturday. As of Friday morning, all systems were go, the space agency said.

The trip to Mars will take nearly seven months and cover roughly 301 million miles. Mission planners at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge expect the lander to touch down in Elysium Planitia in late November.


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