NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission has received a new flight schedule following a two-year delay. The lander, which will study the deep interior of Mars, is now set to launch in May 2018, ahead of a projected landing in November of that year.
NASA InSight Mission:
InSight was set to launch in March 2016. However, the discovery of leaks in key instrumentation during testing forced NASA to abandon its launch date.
Based on optimal Mars transit windows, the next opportunity was 2018. This window – that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018 – has now been confirmed by NASA.
InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and France’s space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), on a path forward; the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument was accepted in support of a 2018 launch.
The cost of the two-year delay is being assessed. An estimate is expected in August, once arrangements with the launch vehicle provider have been made. The spacecraft is set to hitch a ride uphill on the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket flying in her 401 configuration.
CNES is being tasked with ensuring the seismometer instrument’s main sensors can operate within a vacuum chamber to provide the exquisite sensitivity needed for measuring ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom.
This effort will include the rework of the seismometer’s vacuum container, resulting in “a finished, thoroughly tested instrument in 2017 that will maintain a high degree of vacuum around the sensors through rigors of launch, landing, deployment and a two-year prime mission on the surface of Mars,” according to a NASA statement on Wednesday.
Prior to the issue with the instrumentation, development of the spacecraft was proceeding to plan. Engineers had entered what is known as the ATLO phase of processing in 2014.
By May 2015, the lander deployed its solar arrays inside a Denver clean room at Lockheed Martin.
Fully assembled, the spacecraft began a series of rigorous environmental testing throughout the summer months.
This testing was designed to confirm InSight can survive deep space travel and the harsh conditions of the Martian surface.
During the environmental testing phase, the lander was exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions of nearly zero air pressure simulating interplanetary space, and a battery of tests.
“We’re delighted that NASA has approved the launch of the InSight mission in May 2018,” added Stu Spath, the spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin.
“Our team worked hard to get the InSight spacecraft built and tested, and although InSight didn’t launch this year as planned, we know ultimately the scientific knowledge it will bring us is crucial to our understanding of how Mars and other rocky planets formed.
“Currently, we are preparing the spacecraft to go into storage at our Space Systems facility near Denver.”
The discovery of the issue with the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument was the responsibility of CNES, not Lockheed Martin.
SEIS was also built with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, with support from the Swiss Space Office and the European Space Agency PRODEX program; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, supported by DLR; Imperial College, supported by the United Kingdom Space Agency; and JPL.
The spacecraft also received testing in its cruise configuration, with the lander is stowed inside an aeroshell capsule and the spacecraft’s cruise stage – for power, communications, course corrections and other functions on the way to Mars – fastened to the capsule.
Originally assigned as a Discovery-class mission, the InSight mission holds a large amount of synergy with NASA’s Phoenix lander, which successfully touched down near Mars’ northern polar ice cap in 2008.
NASA’s InSight mission will record the first-ever measurements of the interior of the red planet, providing scientists back on Earth with unprecedented detail into the evolution of Mars and other terrestrial planets.
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 includes a probe that will hammer itself to a depth of about 16 feet (5 meters) into the ground beside the lander, providing – as the mission’s name suggests – major insight into the interior of Mars.
“The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”
NASA and CNES also are participating in ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) Mars Express mission currently operating at Mars. NASA is participating on ESA’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing telecommunication radios for ESA’s 2016 orbiter and a critical element of a key astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is currently on track for launch on March 14, riding on a Russian government Proton-M rocket.
(Images via NASA, Lockheed Martin, CNES and JPL).