UPDATE: NASA makes it official. Cancellation of the mission isn’t off the table per this tweet from The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla. But delays happen. NASA’s Jim Green touched on another delay that ultimately led to success. “In 2008, we made a difficult, but correct decision to postpone the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission for two years to better ensure mission success,” said Green. “The successes of that mission’s rover, Curiosity, have vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay.”
In just three months, NASA’s Mars InSight lander was set to launch. Its mission? To study seismic activity on Mars. But that mission is now on hold. Earlier this month, a key science instrument for the spacecraft experienced a leak in its vacuum container.
The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is one of InSight’s most important instruments. It’s a seismometer designed to take incredibly precise measurements of quakes and any other internal activity on Mars.
To take these precise measurements, SEIS needs to operate in a vacuum. We’re talking ground motions as small as the width of an atom. Because of the tiny leak, the instrument can’t meet the requirements needed once delivered to the surface of the red planet.
“After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair an air leak on a key component of the mission’s science payload.”
A NASA press conference is scheduled for later today. We should hear more about exactly what the issue is and what happens next.
When can InSight launch again?
The leak sucks, but the impending delay has to be devastating for the InSight team. You need just the right orbital alignments between Earth and Mars to launch a mission to the red planet. InSight was planning to hit one of these orbital alignments in March 2016. When’s the next one? 2018. Ouch.
But it won’t launch because one instrument has an air leak. I wouldn’t want to be France’s national space agency right now (they are providing the SEIS instrument).
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program
In 2012, InSight was selected by NASA for full development. It beat out two other outstanding mission concepts. One of them centered around placing a boat on Titan. It would have been the first direct exploration of an ocean environment beyond Earth. Not to take anything away from the InSight team, but a boat on Titan? That’s awesome.
The other mission was designed to study cometary evolution. Its name? Comet Hopper. And it would have lived up to it by landing several times on a comet.
Here’s a video that goes into a bit more detail about the InSight lander.
A small ray of hope
Space News’ Peter B. de Selding tweeted several comments from CNES President Le Gall.
CNES President Le Gall: We’re not giving up resolving NASA Mars InSight lander instrument leak; we have till 5 January to nail it down.