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NASA sends Mars InSight rocketing toward the Red Planet

The space agency's first launch from the west coast of the US goes off without a hitch, as an Atlas V rocket sends the lander and two cubesats on their way to Mars.

NASA's Mars InSight is on its way to the Red Planet to explore the unseen interior of our neighbor and listen for "Marsquakes." The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the Martian lander successfully lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California at 4:05 a.m. Pacific Time on Saturday.

Mars InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is NASA's first interplanetary mission to leave from the west coast of the US. 

The lander will spend at least two years "listening" to the interior of Mars as it measures the planet's subsurface heat and detects Marsquakes. The goal is to develop a map of sorts of the planet's interior and hopefully gain insights into the formation of other rocky planets, including Earth.

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The Atlas 5 carrying InSight also carries a pair of experimental cubesats called MarCo and nicknamed "Wall-E" and "Eva" that will tag along to Mars. All three spacecraft took off on a southward path that carried the rocket over the Pacific Ocean, around the south pole and toward the other side of the planet before the rocket made a left turn toward Mars.

Though the rocket's ascent into space should've been visible from much of Southern California and even parts of Mexico, fog made it tough to catch a glimpse of the Atlas V without being above the marine layer. 

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NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green said that though it was tricky to actually see the launch pad, there was no missing the moment of launch.

"We heard it, we really heard it," Green said. "Car alarms went off in the parking lot."

Still, some sky watchers and space nerds did manage to get up early and find a fog-free vantage point.

Good morning Long Beach, here's an Atlas V rocket to start your day. #insight

A post shared by Dalton James (@iamdaltonjames) on

At around 5:38 a.m. PT, Mars Insight, Wall-E and Eva separated from the Centaur upper stage engine of the Atlas V, and officially went on their way to our neighboring planet.

The Mars InSight lander itself was built by Lockheed Martin of Denver, but it carries scientific instruments developed as part of an international collaboration with space agencies and other scientific institutions around the world. It carries a suite of highly sensitive seismometers to detect Marsquakes and a special "mole" that will drill up to 16 feet below the Martian surface to take heat readings and help map the planet's "guts."

"It's been enormously challenging to put together such a small sensor with the performance we need to detect Marsquakes," said professor Tom Pike from Imperial College London, who was one of the leaders on a team developing the short period seismometer on InSight. "We've had the support of the UK Space Agency, and their considerable patience. Now we finally get to see our microseismometers leave the launch pad, next stop Mars."  

InSight is scheduled to land on a broad plain named Elysium Planitia in November. Be sure to check out the full details of the Mars InSight mission in our earlier coverage and the video above.

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