NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has finally approved the new launch window for the agency’s upcoming Mars InSight mission. Liftoff of the spacecraft, initially planned for March 2016, was postponed due to a detected vacuum leak in one of its science instruments.
The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission aims to investigate the deep interior of Mars. To achieve its scientific goals, the InSight lander, once on the Martian surface, will deploy its robotic arm with a seismometer and a heat probe to study the planet’s interior.
However, in December 2015, the spacecraft’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), provided by the French Space Agency (CNES), was found to be malfunctioning when it comes to sustaining a protective vacuum under simulated Martian conditions. SEIS, in order to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom, needs to operate within a vacuum chamber to provide the exquisite sensitivity needed its measurements.
Therefore, NASA decided to put the liftoff on hold and chose a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a planned landing on Nov. 26, 2018. This is due to the fact that Earth and Mars are properly lined up only every 26 months. Now, the new date has been accepted by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, meaning that the spacecraft team has the green light for redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument that failed to work properly.
"This confirmation of the launch plan for InSight is excellent news and an unparalleled opportunity to learn more about the internal structure of the Red Planet, which is currently of major interest to the international science community," said CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall.
CNES will now focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be responsible for redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument's evacuated container.
NASA estimated that this delay and the instrument redesign will cost additional $153.8 million, assuring that it will not delay or cancel any current missions. However, future missions, envisioned for fiscal years 2017-2020, may suffer from this additional spending on the InSight pre-launch operations.
The approval is perceived as the first step towards redesigning InSight’s crucial instrument, keeping the mission on track and giving engineers additional time for final touches on the spacecraft.
“It’s gratifying that we are moving forward with this important mission to help us better understand the origins of Mars and all the rocky planets, including Earth,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
InSight will be launched atop United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V booster from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.