Before it begins its 300-million mile journey to Mars, NASA's InSight will put on a spectacular farewell light show for millions of early-risers in California.
The robotic lander, the first interplanetary mission to launch from the U.S. West Coast, will soar into the pre-dawn sky aboard an Atlas V-401 rocket on May 5 within a two-hour launch window starting at 4 a.m. PST. Should the weather not cooperate, NASA plans to hold early morning launch windows daily until June 8.
"No matter at what particular time and date InSight launches during its launch windows, its date with Mars is set for Nov. 26, 2018," the agency stated.
InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, will be the first robotic lander specifically designed to study the Martian crust, mantle and core. Once on the surface, the 20-foot wide, solar-powered craft will use a variety of instruments, including an advanced seismometer, to listen for and analyze "marsquakes" and asteroid strikes. Over time, these seismic waves and the way they interact with different geologic materials will give researchers an unprecedented look at what lies beneath the surface of the red planet.
You can learn more about the mission in the video below.
"During formation, this ball of featureless rock metamorphosed into a diverse and fascinating planet, almost like caterpillar to a butterfly," Bruce Banerdt, Insight's principal investigator, said in a statement. "We want to use seismology to learn why Mars formed the way it did, and how planets take shape in general."
In addition to its ultra-sensitive seismometer, InSight also contains a thermal probe capable of burying itself up to 16 feet underground and measuring heat flow from inside the planet. It will conduct these experiments near Mars' equator within a region known as Elysium Planitia, not far from where the Mars Curiosity rover is operating in Gale Crater.
And a tiny detail that may interest future archeologists scavenging Mars centuries from now, the craft also contains the names of 2.4 million people etched onto a tiny microchip.
As for the launch, while there's no guarantee that the May 5th date will hold, this is certainly something worth waking up for. According to NASA, should clear conditions prevail, the launch may be visible to more than 10 million people from Santa Maria, California to San Diego. They encourage anyone interested to check the launch site for updates, wake up early, and prepare to catch a spectacular light show. As you can see from some earlier nighttime launches of the Atlas V, it's truly a remarkable sight to behold.