NASA suspends March launch of InSight mission to Mars

It will take weeks, if not months, before NASA knows how much this delay will cost

Chicago, December 23

NASA announced yesterday it has suspended the March 2016 launch of its InSight mission to Mars because of problems with a key scientific component.

The next launch window will not occur until around May 2018 and the US space agency said it did not yet know if it would be able to continue with the mission given budget constraints.

“We either decide to go forward, or we don’t, and that depends on cost data,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, told reporters.

“I don’t think anyone has a question that in 26 months we won’t be able to solve the problem.”

It will take weeks, if not months, before NASA knows how much this delay will cost, and whether it will be able to come up with the funding to move forward with InSight. The mission has a total cost cap of $675 million and it has already spent $525 million.

The InSight lander -- which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport -- was set to delve deep beneath the Red Planet’s surface in order to discover how the solar system’s rocky planets formed.

“Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era,” Grunsfeld said.

“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.”

The problematic instrument is a seismometer provided by France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom.

“It’s a hard blow,” CNES president Jean-Yves Le Gall told AFP.

“This is one of the risks of the job. The good news is that our system was able to discover the problem when it was still here on Earth.”

NASA said the decision to delay follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak affecting the vacuum seal around three main sensors that is necessary in order to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.

A leak discovered earlier this year, that prevented it from retaining vacuum conditions, was successfully repaired, and the mission team “was hopeful the most recent fix also would be successful.”

However, the instrument once again failed to hold a vacuum during testing on Monday in extreme cold temperatures.

“It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built,” said Marc Pircher, Director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre.

“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.”