NASA, JPL Make History with West Coast Interplanetary Launch

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The first mission to study the center of Mars took flight as scheduled this morning at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.

The successful launch at 4:05 a.m. marked two interstellar firsts for NASA and Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- the first mission to study the center of Mars and the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast.

The InSight mission -- short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport -- created a light show visible from Santa Maria to San Diego for residents as thousands woke up early this morning to witness the spectacle in person or streaming online.

``Depending on where you are in Southern California you'll be able to see the space craft at various points along its ascent as it heads off on its way to Mars,'' Tom Hoffman, a project manager with NASA, said at a March news conference at JPL. ``This should be spectacular because it will be early morning hours so it should light up the sky and be very visible throughout all of Southern California and into Mexico.''

The InSight probe, a stationary lander, is headed toward the Red Planet by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

JPL will manage the InSight Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

The mission is the first ever dedicated to Mars' deep interior, and it will be the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer on the soil of another celestial body.

``In essence it will take the vital signs of Mars -- pulse, temperature and much more. We like to say that it is the first thorough checkup since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago,'' said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

The launch window for the mission stretches into June 8, in case weather or technical issues force delays in Saturday's planned takeoff. Regardless of when the rocket actually launches, InSight is scheduled to land on Mars on Nov. 26.

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