NASA Suspends Next Mars Mission by at Least 2 Years

SEIS test

The US space agency NASA said it has suspended the planned launch of a Mars lander called InSight in March 2016 due to unsuccessful attempts to set up a leak in a French-built seismological instrument.

According to NASA, the geophysical instruments onboard InSight would be able to take readings of the planet's interior to reveal clues about how terrestrial planets form.

The agency's latest mission to Mars was meant to send off the InSight spacecraft, invented to examine the Red Planet's geology with instruments that could monitor seismic activity.

The faulty instrument is a very sensitive seismometer invented to measure movements in the Martian soil as small as the diameter of an atom, NASA said in a statement. Earlier this month, a key science instrument for the spacecraft experienced a leak in its vacuum container.

But the leaks were large enough that the pressure inside rose to 2 tenths of a millibar over the course of a few days, "which is by most standards a pretty darn good vacuum", Banerdt said.

Preparations are on a tight schedule for launch during the period March 4th through March 30th. The negative results from Monday's test led NASA and CNES to conclude that they ran out of time for 2016's opportunity. These were fixed, but yesterday during final thermal testing, "we found that it is still leaking".

In the past, NASA has used simulated environments during training for big missions; Apollo crews actually spent one third of their training time in simulators. The team is optimistic that the 2018 window might see InSight through.

CNES President Jean Yves Le Gall at the Paris Air Show 2015
NASA Suspends Next Mars Mission by at Least 2 Years

Despite the budgetary concerns, Grunsfeld expressed hope that the InSight mission would go forward. "Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era", Grunsfeld said. A Mars-Earth alignment favorable to space travel happens just once every 26 months. That added hundreds of millions of dollars to the mission cost, boosting the total price tag to $2.5 billion. To date, InSight has already cost $525 million.

The InSight mission was to investigate whether the core of Mars is solid or liquid like Earth's and why Mars' crust is not divided into tectonic plates that drift like on the Earth.

The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on Dec. 16.

The cancellation raises questions about the future of the research effort, as it will be another two years before Earth and Mars are favourably aligned for a launch.

 

The uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is the next space flight of Orion that will be launched into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon in 2018.

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