NASA Suspends InSight, the Next Big Mission to Mars

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Dec 23, 2015
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Well, not all the space news this week is good: NASA formally suspended the Mars InSight mission. The lander was set to launch in March 2016 for a September 2016 touchdown. Its mission is to study the interior geology of Mars; the name is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport.

The main instrument on the lander, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, is a seismometer designed to study the ground movements of Mars to extraordinary accuracy, literally displacements on the size scale of atoms.

SEIS, built by the French Centre National d'Études Spatiales, needs a very rigorous vacuum seal around its three sensors. During a vacuum test last week, though, a leak was found. Leaks had been found earlier in the year and repaired, but this new leak is too close to the launch date to be sure it can be fixed.

Given that, NASA admins made the hard call: The mission has been suspended for now. During a press conference, Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator, said they don’t think there’s a fundamental design flaw with the instrument, just a stubborn part or parts. It’s possible this can be repaired, and the instrument thoroughly checked again. For now, InSight will be shipped to Lockheed to undergo examination.

Because of the relative motion of Earth and Mars around the Sun, the two planets won’t be in position for another launch for 26 months—that is, until 2018. Here’s where things get sticky: That’s plenty of time to fix the problem, but InSight is a cost-cap mission; there’s a hard upper limit of $675M for the mission including launch, and $525M has already been spent. Because of that, there’s a chance it may be canceled altogether. NASA has not yet run the numbers for that.

This is heartbreaking; the rocket is ready to be assembled, and things were looking good for launch just three months from now. But SEIS is the main instrument on InSight, and NASA won’t launch a mission when there’s a good chance the main device might fail.

It’s tough news right now, but it sounds like it’s the right call. And it may yet work out; the Curiosity rover mission was delayed by two years to give engineers time to work out some unexpected kinks, and I doubt most people even remember that now because the mission has been so ridiculously successful. My big concern is the cost cap, honestly. If it's projected to run out of money, then that may very well be that (unless the Europeans cover the additional costs). Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

For more details, I suggest reading Casey Dreier’s article at the Planetary Society, and, as usual, following Emily Lakdawalla on Twitter.

This stinks, but the story’s not over yet. Stay Tuned.