The planned March launch of a Mars mission partially managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory was scrubbed Tuesday by NASA following failed attempts to repair a leak in one of the key pieces of scientific equipment aboard.
The “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport,” or InSight, mission is aimed at learning more about the interior workings of Mars, in hopes of teaching scientists more about the formation and evolution of our own planet.
“Learning more about the interior structure of Mars has been a high- priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. “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.”
The mission includes a French-designed seismometer called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, which measures even miniscule ground movements but must maintain a vacuum-sealed environment for its three main sensors. A previous leak that prevented that vacuum condition was successfully repaired but another leak developed, and the attempted repair failed during testing on Monday, according to NASA and JPL.
NASA officials said there is not enough time to complete another repair and testing period in time for the planned launch. With that news, the spacecraft that had already been delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base will be returned to Lockheed Martin’s facility in Denver.
The launch window for the spacecraft had been from March 4-30. NASA officials said the positioning of the planets favorable for the launch of missions to Mars occurs for only a few weeks every 26 months, meaning the launch will likely have to wait another two years.
“The JPL and (French) teams have made a heroic effort to prepare the InSight instrument, but have run out of time given the celestial mechanics of a launch to Mars,” JPL Director Charles Elachi said. “It is more important to do it right than take an unacceptable risk.”
NASA officials noted that such a delay is not unprecedented. In 2008, the Mars Science Laboratory mission was delayed for two years, but it still went on to become one of NASA’s most successful Mars exploratory missions.
“InSight’s investigation of the Red Planet’s interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL. “Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets’ early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks. Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this.”
— Wire reports
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