NASA’s Next Mars Lander Won’t Launch in 2016, Leaky Instrument to Blame

An Artist’s illustration of NASA’s InSight Mars Lander on the Martian surface. The mission, slated to launch in March 2016, will not be ready due to instrument leaks, NASA says. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has called off the planned March 2016 launch of a Mars lander, saying one of the spacecraft’s key instruments cannot be fixed in time for liftoff.

Because Mars and Earth align favorably just once every 26 months, NASA’s InSight Mars lander now must wait until mid-2018 to begin its mission to characterize the Red Planet’s interior in unprecedented detail — if the spacecraft gets off the ground at all. Indeed, there’s a chance the mission will be scrapped entirely, agency officials said.

“That’s all forward work,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a teleconference today (Dec. 22), referring to the determination of InSight’s ultimate fate. “We just haven’t had time to work through that because our focus was on getting ready to launch.” [Photos: NASA’s Mars InSight Mission to Probe Red Planet’s Core ]

The problem lies with the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), one of InSight’s two primary science instruments. SEIS, which was provided by the French space agency CNES, is a suite of three seismometers designed to measure “Mars quakes” and other subsurface activity on the Red Planet.

SEIS requires a vacuum environment to make its ultraprecise measurements. NASA and CNES officials announced earlier this month that SEIS’ vacuum container was leaking — an issue that was traced to a defective weld.

CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall said two weeks ago that he expected the issue would be rectified in time for SEIS’ shipment to the United States in early January. And the fixes indeed appeared to be working until Monday (Dec. 21), when a leak reappeared during testing at a facility in France, Grunsfeld said.

“As of yesterday, we were still planning to go,” he said.

There simply is not enough time now to perform a lasting fix and to test that fix sufficiently before InSight’s planned launch this March, he added.

“We’re not ready to go,” Grunsfeld said. “I think it’s much better that we have this discussion now, rather than sending it to Mars and wishing we had the opportunity here on Earth to fix something.”

Marc Pircher, director of CNES’ Toulouse Space Center, expressed confidence that the SEIS issue will be resolved soon, since the problem lies in the spherical vacuum chamber and not with the nuts and bolts of the instrument itself.

“We are sure that we will fix the problem we have with the sphere in less than 26 months,” he said during today’s teleconference. “We will do that in a few months.”

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