July 20, 2017 – The prime science instrument for NASA’s next Mars spacecraft has arrived at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado. The seismometer provided by France’s national space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), will now be integrated with the spacecraft in time for a 2018 launch.
The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is the first Mars mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of the Red Planet. Learning about the interior of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking landers in the 1970’s. The mission will tell scientists a lot about the core, mantle and crust of all rocky planets, including Earth, because Mars lacks the internal churning that exists in Earth’s core.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems is responsible for building and testing the 1,380-pound spacecraft, which includes a lander, aeroshell and cruise stage. It’s based on Lockheed’s Mars Phoenix design that successfully landed on Mars in 2008.
InSight was on track to launch in March 2016, but NASA suspended launch preparations due to a vacuum leak in its key instrument, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The seismometer includes a vacuum container around its three main sensors and maintaining the vacuum is essential for the instrument’s extremely high sensitivity – capable of measuring ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom.
Lockheed Martin delivered the spacecraft to the Astrotech Space Operations facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in December 2015. The spacecraft was set to undergo final processing, including the installation and testing of the SEIS instrument, when the problem with SEIS was discovered. The spacecraft was returned to Lockheed’s Colorado facility for storage until spacecraft preparations could resume.
Under what is known as a mission “replan,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, redesigned, built and qualified the instrument’s new vacuum enclosure and the electrical feedthroughs that previously failed. CNES led the instrument level integration and test activities, allowing the InSight team to take advantage of each organization’s strengths.
NASA’s budget for InSight was $675 million. The instrument redesign and two-year delay was projected to add more than $150 million to the cost, which will affect the agency’s budget in fiscal years 2017-2020.
A new launch period for InSight begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing targeted for November 26, 2018. The relative positions of Earth and Mars are most favorable for launching missions between the two planets for only a few weeks every 26 months, so 2018 is the soonest the mission can be on its way.
InSight will be the first Mars mission ever launched from California. The spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket provided by United Launch Services LLC of Centennial, Colorado.
The InSight project is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The InSight mission draws upon a strong international partnership led by Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL. The lander’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). This probe will hammer itself to a depth of about 16 feet (5 meters) into the ground beside the lander.
The mission’s international science team includes researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.