No 2016 launch to Mars for Insight due to instrument leak
Knowledge on the inner workings of the development of the Red Planet and other terrestrial worlds will have to wait. Today, Dec. 22, NASA held a press conference letting the public know that the agency’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) probe to Mars will be delayed due to a leak that was discovered in the spacecraft’s science payload.
Insight is a stationary lander with a mass of some 770 pounds (350 kg). It has two instrument packages on board. A seismometer, built by France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), located in Toulouse, France, with the craft’s heat transfer probe being provided by the German Space Agency.
The InSight spacecraft is planned to be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The lander was scheduled to launch sometime between March 4 and March 30 of next year when the planetary alignment of Earth and Mars would have been at its most optimal position. The next similar launch window won’t open until 2018 – pushing the flight of InSight back by at least two more years.
“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 Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, in Washington. “The successes of that mission’s rover, Curiosity, have vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay.”
The instrument that caused this delay is InSight’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The seismometer suffered from a leak in the vacuum supply. This is a critical element instrument for the mission as it is meant to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom. A vacuum seal is essential on this instrument and its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
This is an issue which has cropped up on this mission before.
Engineers were successful in repairing that leak and had high hopes this second repair would work as well. Unfortunately, when the probe was exposed to the Mars-like temperature condition of –49 °F (–45 °C) the latest repair failed. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory determined there was not sufficient time to complete the repairs and systems testing before the launch window opened.
“It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built. We were very close to succeeding, but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation. Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won’t be solved in time for a launch in 2016,” said Marc Pircher, CNES’ Director of the Toulouse Space Centre.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate located in Washington also noted that the mission’s launch as being delayed out of an abundance of caution.
“Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era. “We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we’re not ready to launch in the 2016 window. A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars,” Grunsfeld, a five-time space shuttle astronaut himself said.
The launch delay means Lockheed Martin will be returning the spacecraft to their Denver facility. The lander had been delivered for testing to Vandenberg Air Force on Dec. 16.
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.