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NASA Delays the InSight Probe’s Voyage to Mars

Originally scheduled for this month, NASA now plans to launch the probe in 2018

NASA's InSight lander inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin)
smithsonian.com

Persistent problems with NASA’s Mars InSight probe have delayed its launch date by more than two years. Initially scheduled to launch later this month, NASA engineers discovered critical problems with the probe’s seismometer. While the problem is fixable, NASA says the launch will have to wait until May 2018.

One of the key tasks of the InSight mission is to measure seismic activity deep inside the Red Planet. The probe’s main goal is to gather data that might help scientists understand how rocky planets like Mars and the Earth formed while measuring the velocity of tiny quakes as they pass through the planet’s interior, Eric Berger reports for Ars Technica.

But several times over the last year, engineers discovered leaks in a vacuum seal that will protect the sensitive seismometers from the harsh environment on Mars’ surface. In December, NASA decided to delay the mission until the flaws could be addressed.

The InSight probe contains three seismometers, each of which are so sensitive that they can detect movements as small as a fraction of a hydrogen atom. However, that sensitivity means they need to be sealed in a near-total vacuum in order to deliver precise measurements. But even though engineers at NASA and the French space agency Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), which manufactured the instrument, believe they have found a fix, the launch had to be delayed to make time for the repairs, Kenneth Chang reports for the New York Times.

"The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. "The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We're excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018."

According to NASA’s schedule, the problems with the seismometer should be fixed by next year. However, because Mars has a slower orbit around the sun than the Earth, the two planets won’t be close enough for NASA to launch the InSight probe until May 2018. In the meantime, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the InSight mission, will redesign and build a new vacuum seal for the sensors, Chang reports.

“They’ll be watching that very closely and making sure we’re making good progress,” NASA planetary geophysicist and the mission’s principal investigator, W. Bruce Banerdt, tells Chang.

While Banerdt and his colleagues are excited that InSight finally has a new launch date, it’s unclear how much this delay will end up costing. NASA has budgeted a maximum of $675 million for the mission, but as Banerdt tells Chang, the delay and repairs could end up costing the space agency an extra $150 million, more or less.

While NASA officials could still decide to cancel the mission, for now InSight is back on track for its voyage to Mars.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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