Robotic geologist headed to Mars

The Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A robotic geologist armed with a hammer and quake monitor rocketed toward Mars on Saturday, aiming to land on the red planet and explore its mysterious insides.

In a twist, NASA launched the Mars InSight lander from Califor­nia rather than Florida’s Cape Can­averal. It was the first interplanetary mission ever to depart from the West Coast, drawing pre-dawn crowds to fog-socked Vandenberg Air Force Base and rocket watchers down the California coast into Baja.

“This is a big day. We’re going back to Mars!” NASA’s new boss, Jim Bridenstine, said following liftoff. “This is an extraordinary mission with a whole host of firsts.”

The spacecraft will take more than six months to get to Mars and start its unprecedented geologic excavations, traveling 300 million miles to get there.

InSight will dig deeper into Mars than ever before — nearly 16 feet, or 5 meters — to take the planet’s temperature. It will also attempt to make the first measurements of marsquakes, using a high-tech seismometer placed directly on the Martian surface.

“That’s the real payoff of this whole mission and that’s still lying ahead of us,” said the mission’s chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Although fog prevented Banerdt from seeing the liftoff of the $1 billion U.S.-European mission, he heard the roar of the rocket and all the blaring car alarms it set off.

“It was just an incredible mo­ment,” Banerdt told The Associated Press by phone. Despite the challenges still ahead, “I think I can bask in a little bit of satisfaction and just feeling like we really accomplished something today.”