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.
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 the science instruments on the surface.
Mr. Banerdt 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 hasn’t been transformed by plate tectonics and other processes, he noted. InSight might also help explain why some planet —like ours—went on to develop life, while others did not.
Over the course of two Earth years—or one Martian year—NASA expects InSight’s three main experiments to provide a true 3-D image of the interior of Mars. Scientists know Mars has an iron core and a crust, but beyond that, the inside is “basically, completely unknown,” said Mr. Banerdt.