spaceSpace and Physics

NASA's Mars Mission Delayed For Two Years

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Justine Alford

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311 NASA's Mars Mission Delayed For Two Years
NASA's InSight mission has been suspended due to an instrument fault. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just two days after a historic achievement in space travel was made, with SpaceX successfully returning part of its launched rocket safely to the ground, a huge blow to the field has become apparent. NASA’s eagerly anticipated Mars venture, due to commence next March, has been suspended for more than two years due to an instrument fault.

Called the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, the project was designed to divulge information on the Red Planet’s interior structure. By uncovering these secrets, scientists hoped to learn about the processes of rocky planet formation and evolution, which would increase our understanding not just of Mars, but Earth and other similar planets too.


One of the key instruments to help us along this journey of discovery was the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, an incredibly sensitive seismometer capable of picking up ground movements as minuscule as the size of an atom.  And unfortunately, this is the one that led to the delay of this mission.

The Martian environment can be extremely harsh, and to protect the instrument from these extreme conditions, vacuum seals had to be maintained around its sensors. Twice, however, a leak has meant that a vacuum couldn’t be sustained. Although scientists managed to fix it the first time, testing Monday revealed a recurring problem, so the decision was made to suspend the planned launch.

“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,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. “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.”

Since launches to Mars from Earth require the planets to be in particular positions relative to one another, missing the March slot unfortunately means that scientists can't try again when the instrument is fixed. The favorable positions only come about for a couple of weeks every 26 months, so the mission will be delayed for more than two years.


“In 2008, we made a difficult, but correct decision to postpone the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission for two years to better ensure mission success,” Director of the Planetary Science Division Jim Green said in the statement. “The successes of that mission’s rover, Curiosity, have vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay.”

Hopefully, the issue can be repaired so that InSight can go ahead in a couple of years, but if the fault turns out to be more significant than thought, unfortunately we may not be waving goodbye to this probe until the next decade comes around. 


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