NASA’s troubled InSight mission, an ambitious proposal to drill into the surface of Mars, has a new launch date: May 5, 2018. This means the mission will be going ahead and will not be canceled, despite a two-year delay.
InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, was supposed to be launching this month. However, in December a fault was found with its primary science instrument, a leak in one of its vacuum seals. This gave NASA the unenvious task of postponing the mission by two years.
Owing to the orbits of Earth and Mars, missions to the Red Planet can only launch when the alignment favors a trajectory between them; you can’t get there when Mars is on the other side of the Sun. These launch windows open every two years, which is why you often see Mars missions launch in batches. For example, this month also sees the launch of the European ExoMars mission.
So the small fault in InSight meant it had to be delayed by two years. But when it does finally arrive, now scheduled for November 16, 2018, we will be afforded some pretty interesting science from the surface.
InSight is a static lander, and when it touches down it will use a drill – or, more precisely, a “hammer” – developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to delve 5 meters (16 feet) below the surface. Here, a probe will measure the temperature of the Red Planet to see how it increases with depth, helping work out what’s going on inside Mars.
"The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”
InSight will use solar arrays for power on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Another instrument, from France’s national space agency, will measure the planet’s seismic activity, including supposed “Marsquakes” in its interior. It was this instrument that experienced the leak, which would have meant it was useless after landing, forcing NASA into the 26-month delay.
The spacecraft will be stored by Lockheed Martin for the next two years, but according to Universe Today the cost of the delay could be more than $100 million, which had led some to suggest the mission (which already cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars) could be scrapped. NASA says an official estimate on the cost will be announced in August.
It’s not clear how this money will be scraped from NASA’s already tight budget, but one would hope that it doesn’t come at the cost of one of the other exciting missions NASA is working on. For now, though, the scientists who worked on InSight can be safe in the knowledge it is going ahead.