This week should’ve had us celebrating the launch of NASA’s next Mars rover mission — but instead, the space agency is still debating whether to send it at all.
NASA’s InSight Mars rover was supposed to have lifted off on March 4, but engineers found a critical problem with the probe in December 2015 that pretty much derailed any hopes of hitting the launch date. The problem? An infinitesimal leak in a 9-inch chamber that holds seismic sensors meant to study the Red Planet. In any other circumstance, the leak would be so small it’d never be noticed, but the team determined it was just large enough to throw off the sensors — meaning the mission would’ve been a multimillion dollar waste of time had they launched as is.
According to Space, project scientist Bruce Banerdt told a Mars exploration planning group that they’re pretty much sitting on “Go,” waiting for the NASA higher-ups to decide how to proceed next, and if the project will actually launch on a backup date in May 2018:
"The fact that I'm standing here talking to you, instead of gloating on the phone (from the Mission Control Center) is a clue that things haven't gone as well as one may have hoped. Everything was ready to go, but then we kind of went off the rails.”
To this point, NASA has already spent $525 million on InSight, but it’ll cost another $150 million to actually fix the problem — putting the initiative over budget to the point that it would likely delay other projects already in the pipeline.
The mission was designed to study the planet’s core and mantle, providing information that is critical to understanding how the planet formed and evolved. That data could provide valuable intel about the creation of our solar system. Not to mention: If we eventually hope to put boots on the ground, that intel could prove extremely valuable.