NASA calls off a mission to Mars

NASA is calling off the launch of a mission to Mars because of a series of leaks in a key instrument meant to tell scientists about earthquakes and seismic activity on the red planet.

The InSight, known fully as the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport mission, is a collaboration between NASA, other agencies such as France's National Center for Space Studies, and contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

Its purpose is to study the deep interior of Mars, including the planet's seismic activity. Data from such a mission could tell researchers a great deal about the formation of rocky planets, including Earth. And it is important to understand seismic activity if NASA wants to reach its goal of putting humans on Mars.

Mars Rover Curiosity.
Source: NASA
Mars Rover Curiosity.

The leak was discovered last week in Paris, where a team of French researchers are developing the instruments. The leak occurred while the instruments were being tested at extremely cold temperatures (-49 degrees Fahrenheit) that mimic the Martian climate.

The setback means that the team will not have the instruments ready in time for the scheduled launch of the spacecraft in March 2016. Because of the shifting alignments of the planets, the next window for a suitable launch will not come around for another two years.

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"Mars only has launch opportunity every 26 months, so if you miss the window, its game over," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

NASA's and the other organizations on the project have already spent $525 million of their $675 million budget, which is capped at that amount by Congress.

The seismometer, which measures about eight or nine inches in diameter, is sensitive enough to measure vibrations so slight, they are "at the level of the size of an atom," Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator of the InSight project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The leak means that the enclosure around the seismometer has 1/10,000 of an atmosphere, which is still a minuscule amount of pressure.

"But we need a better instrument than that," Banerdt said.

The Lockheed-built spacecraft that would house the rover and instruments was just delivered to Vandenburg Air Force Base on Dec. 16. It will return to a Lockheed Martin facility in Denver, according to a press release.

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Members of the team at CNES, France's National Centre for Space Studies, said they are confident they will fix the problem by the time the next launch window opens.

"It's the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built. We were very close to succeeding, but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation. Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won't be solved in time for a launch in 2016," said Marc Pircher, director of CNES' Toulouse Space Center, in the press release.

And despite the setback, NASA said its larger mission of exploring Mars continues, and NASA officials stressed that failures have occurred before.

"In 2008, we made a difficult, but correct, decision to postpone the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission for two years to better ensure mission success," said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, in Washington, in the press release. "The successes of that mission's rover, Curiosity, have vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay."