A NASA spacecraft has blasted off for Mars on a mission to collect data on the Red Planet's deep interior. Researchers hope to gain clues about how Mars and other rocky planets like Earth formed billions of years ago.
The Atlas rocket launched early Saturday from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — making it the first interplanetary mission to ever take off from the US West Coast.
The unmanned craft, carrying a solar-powered robotic lander named InSight, will take around six months to travel the 485 million kilometers (300 million miles) to Mars. Once there, it'll begin a series of unprecedented excavations aimed at gathering information about the planet's core.
Read more: Our first InSight into the interior of Mars
The InSight lander, equipped with an extremely sensitive French-built seismometer, is specifically designed to pick up the smallest vibrations from tremors, or "Marsquakes," that shake the planet.
Scientists said they expect to see up to 100 such quakes over the course of the two-year mission, enabling them to study the depth, density and composition of the planet's interior, as well as its outer crust.
"I can't describe to you in words how very excited I am ... to go off to Mars," project manager Tom Hoffman from NASA said. "It's going to be awesome."
InSight has also been fitted with a self-hammering probe, made in Germany, that can gauge temperature by drilling as deep as 5 meters (16 feet) below the surface — 15 times deeper than any previous Mars mission, according to NASA.
A special transmitter on the lander will also send radio signals back to Earth, monitoring Mars' rotational wobble to reveal the size and composition of the planet's core.
The $993 million (€830 million) mission also aims to inform efforts to send humans to Mars in the next few decades. If all goes according to plan, the three-legged lander will touch down on a flat area near Mars' equator on November 26.
bik,nm/jm (AP, Reuters, AFP)