September 2, 2016 – NASA is moving forward with a spring 2018 launch of its InSight mission to study the deep interior of Mars, following final approval this week by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft is being assembled and tested by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colorado.
“Our robotic scientific explorers such as InSight are paving the way toward an ambitious journey to send humans to the Red Planet,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in Washington. “It’s gratifying that we are moving forward with this important mission to help us better understand the origins of Mars and all the rocky planets, including Earth.”
The mission was originally scheduled to launch in March of this year, but NASA suspended launch preparations in December due to a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The SEIS instrument, provided by France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), is designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom. The instrument requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
NASA officials determined that there was insufficient time to resolve the issue before the spacecraft’s scheduled launch. The relative positions of the planets are most favorable for launching missions from Earth to Mars for only a few weeks every 26 months and for InSight, that meant that the 2016 launch window, which existed from March 4 to March 30, would be closed by the time corrections could be made.
The spacecraft was returned from Vandenberg Air Force Base to the Lockheed facility, where it was disassembled and the instruments sent back to their individual organizations for storage. The spacecraft has been in storage in a Lockheed Martin clean room ever since.
With the next launch opportunity driven by orbital dynamics, the new launch period for the mission will begin on May 5, 2018.
Under what’s known as the mission “replan,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will be responsible for redesigning, developing and qualifying the SEIS instrument’s evacuated container and the electrical feedthroughs that failed previously. CNES will now focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is contributing the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) to InSight’s science payload.
InSight’s other instruments will be fine-tuned and re-tested before shipping them back to Lockheed Martin for integration.
The spacecraft will come out of hibernation in the summer of 2017 and as the instruments are returned to Lockheed Martin, the company will run through the full slate of testing and the timeline for launch as if it were a new mission.
NASA’s budget for InSight was $675 million. The instrument redesign and two-year delay add $153.8 million. The additional cost will not delay or cancel any current missions, but there could be fewer opportunities for new missions in future years, from fiscal years 2017-2020.
From NASA’s perspective, InSight is the next logical mission and fulfills an agency need. InSight’s primary goal is to help us understand how rocky planets formed and evolved.
Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said, “We’ve concluded that a replanned InSight mission for launch in 2018 is the best approach to fulfill these long-sought, high-priority science objectives.”
The InSight Project is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.