Second chances: NASA’s InSight mission eyed for 2018 launch
With rumors swirling that the mission could be cancelled, NASA announced on March 9, 2016, that the InSight mission would get underway on May 5, 2018. This follows the December 2015 announcement that the mission would not launch this year (2016) due to a vacuum leak in the spacecraft’s primary science instrument.
The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is planned to study the internal mechanisms of terrestrial worlds like the Red Planet – and Earth.
If there are no further delays, InSight is slated to touch down on the dusty Martian plains as soon as Nov. 26, 2018.
“The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “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.”
The science instrument that encountered the problem, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), will be redesigned, rebuilt, and undergo qualifications of its vacuum enclosure. This will be carried out by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena, California.
SEIS was built by the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. They received support from the European Space Agency’s PRODEX program as well as the Swiss Space Office. An array of other organizations also contributed to InSight’s development and production.
In terms of the lander’s integration and testing, that will be handled by the French space agency CNES. Regular interim reviews are scheduled to take place over the next half year to monitor the technical progress made.
“The shared and renewed commitment to this mission continues our collaboration to find clues in the heart of Mars about the early evolution of our solar system,” said Marc Pircher, the director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre.
According to NASA, InSight is tasked with measuring movements as minute as half the radius of a hydrogen atom. To be able to accomplish this, the seismometer instrument’s main sensors need to operate within a vacuum chamber. If everything goes as NASA hopes, these efforts to get the instrument prepared tested and ready will see it ready for flight by 2017. It will need to survive the stresses placed on it through launch, touching down on the surface of Mars, the instrument’s deployment, and then a prime mission planned to last some two years.
“During this ‘hiatus phase’, we’ll keep a small critical team of employees to support periodic checkups on the spacecraft and to develop an updated assembly and testing plan,” Spath told SpaceFlight Insider. “The current plan has us pulling the spacecraft out of storage and re-starting ATLO in the summer of 2017. We are working through the details, but we most likely will run the lander and all of its instruments through most of its landed-configuration environmental testing.”
The InSight mission is led by its Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL.
InSight, like many missions into the black of space, is an international affair. CNES, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales, was the location where project managers sat down with NASA and discussed how to redesign the science instrument so as to support a 2018 launch. The team is composed of researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
Meanwhile, InSight’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package has been provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR – the German space agency). If it functions as advertised, the probe will pound itself to a depth of 16 feet (five meters) into the Martian soil.
The expense of the two-year launch slip has not yet been assessed; that should be made sometime this August and it is dependent on arrangements with the launch service provider – Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA). InSight will be launched on ULA’s Atlas V booster in the 401 configuration.
These space agencies are not alone in their involvement on InSight; the European Space Agency (ESA) is also participating in the mission. The trio also participate on ESA’s Mars Express mission – which is presently orbiting high above the frozen Martian deserts.
Moreover, the ExoMars mission, slated to launch later this year, is also a collaborative effort between NASA and ESA with NASA providing telecommunication radios for the orbiter portion of that mission. NASA will also be contributing an astrobiology instrument for ExoMars’ rover segment, set to take to the skies the same year InSight is now scheduled to fly – 2018.
The InSight cruise stage and lander were all built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space Systems located in Denver. In the lead up to its launch, the spacecraft was transported to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in December of last year (2015). InSight is going into storage soon at Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems facility in Littleton, CO, near Denver. This is the same place where the spacecraft was built and tested.
InSight will join the two rovers already on the planet’s surface as well as Mars Express, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MER), and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) orbiter that are currently in orbit above the planet in studying the Red Planet.
“We’re delighted that NASA has approved the launch of the InSight mission in May 2018. Our team worked hard to get the InSight spacecraft built and tested, and although InSight didn’t launch this year as planned, we know ultimately the scientific knowledge it will bring us is crucial to our understanding of how Mars and other rocky planets formed. Currently, we are preparing the spacecraft to go into storage at our Space Systems facility near Denver,” said InSight program manager Stu Spath.
Video courtesy of NASA
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.