Emily LakdawallaMar 06, 2018

InSight delivered to Vandenberg launch site

It's getting real. Lockheed Martin delivered NASA's InSight Mars lander to its launch site, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on February 28. Launch of the seismology mission is now less than two months away, on May 5.

Lock-Mart shared this photo of the spacecraft taken right after it was unboxed at Vandenberg. It's so cute, a little clamshell of a spacecraft.

InSight being prepared for launch
InSight being prepared for launch NASA's InSight spacecraft at Vandenberg Air Force Base on March 1, 2018, undergoing final processing in preparation for a May launch.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Lockheed Martin

It took me a few minutes to figure out what the flat plates were, underneath the spacecraft, connected to the white ring. I realized that it is the cruise stage, a piece of hardware that turns the Mars lander into an interplanetary vehicle. It has solar panels (you're seeing their undersides in this picture), radio antennas, thrusters, and presumably some kind of navigational sensors (star scanners). Here's a top view:

InSight stacked with its cruise stage
InSight stacked with its cruise stage This photo shows the upper side of the cruise stage of NASA's InSight spacecraft as specialists at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, attach it to the spacecraft's back shell. The photo was taken on April 29, 2015.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Lockheed Martin

I didn't immediately recognize it as the cruise stage because it's so much smaller than Curiosity's cruise stage. Curiosity needed bigger solar panels, but more importantly, needed a big ring of radiators and lots of plumbing behind them to get rid of waste heat from the RTG that would otherwise be really hazardous to the rover and its rocket-fueled descent backpack that was sealed up inside the capsule.

I'll post more about InSight once the mission releases the always-informative launch press kit. But in the meantime, you can put launch day on your calendars. Launch will happen super early in the morning. If it happens on May 5, the launch window opens at 4:05 a.m. PDT (11:05 UT). Since I'm local, I could go attend the launch in person. But Vandenberg launches are notoriously foggy, and cell coverage is minimal, so I'm leaning toward watching the launch from the comfort and relative Internet accessibility of my couch. 

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