NASA’s Mars InSight mission should already be on its way to Mars. Instead, NASA suspended the 2016 launch of the mission in December after a leak was discovered near the seismometer. The seismometer has to be able to retain vacuum conditions to operate properly, and the leak was preventing that.

In December, NASA saw there just wasn’t enough time to fix the leak and complete all the required testing before the March launch date. Delays are never ideal, but they are almost always for the best. Jim Green, the director of the Planetary Science Division, points out NASA delayed the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2008. That mission was delayed for two years, but its rover, Curiosity, has been a huge success.

The InSight mission will receive a similar two-year delay. NASA says they are now targeting a launch window starting on May 5, 2018. If everything goes smoothly, InSight will land safely on the Martian surface on November 26, 2018.

Did you know: Launch windows to Mars occur about every two years (26 months). That’s why InSight is being delayed so long. The orbits of Mars and Earth reach a position that makes a launch ideal. Of course, it’s not as simple as shooting InSight at Mars. Imagine a quarterback (Earth) scrambling and throwing to a wide receiver (Mars). Except on a much larger scale. NASA is launching InSight towards where Mars will eventually be. Remember, it’s going to take about six months for the lander to reach Mars. Here’s an article that dives into this even further.

What InSight can tell us about Mars is another reason NASA is giving the mission a second chance. “The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound,” said NASA’s John Grunsfeld. “The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”

What InSight will tell us about Mars

Grunsfeld touches on this in his statement. InSight isn’t a rover, it’s primary mission is understanding what is going on beneath the Martian surface.

And the seismometer on board is one of the key science instruments. The measurements it can take are incredibly precise. It can measure movements as small as half the width of an atom. If there is seismic activity under Mars, InSight will know.

InSight will spend two years (planned mission time) studying Mars’ interior. How did the planet itself evolve? That’s a question many planetary scientists want to know. And because Mars has been less geologically active than Earth, it holds a “more complete record of its history in its own basic planetary building blocks: its core, mantle and crust,” according to NASA.

The InSight lander will be packed with three instruments and a couple of cameras.

InSight lander

The SEIS is home to the seismometer and will keep tabs on any quakes or seismic activity caused by meteor impacts.

HP3 is a probe that will be hammered five meters into the Martian dirt. That’s deeper than any drill or probe ever placed on Mars. Its goal? To monitor how heat is coming from Mars’ interior.

RISE will track Mars’ “reflexes.” It will track how Mars wobbles from the sun’s gravitational tug.

Several cameras will take black and white pictures of the instruments and the ground. This will help scientists figure out the best deployment of InSight’s instruments.

Right now, InSight is the only planned mission for the May 2018 window. In 2019, we should have a better grasp of what’s going on in Mars’ interior.


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