NASA on Tuesday said it has suspended its next mission to Mars by at least two years due to a leak in a highly sensitive instrument key to the operation.
The space agency will not be launching the Insight spacecraft in March because of an air leak in a seismometer, which measures ground movements and requires a vacuum seal to withstand the red planet’s harsh conditions. The instrument, which is being borrowed from the French Space Agency, failed to hold a vacuum during testing Monday in extreme cold temperature, NASA said.
“It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built,” said Marc Pircher, director of France’s space agency, CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre. “We were very close to succeeding, but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation.”
NASA has a launch window from Earth to Mars for only a few weeks every two years and the timeframe for Insight was March 4 to March 30 next year. The seismometer will not be fixed in time for the 2016 launch, officials said.
“Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we’re not ready to launch in the 2016 window.”
However, the space agency said they expect to solve the problem within the 26 month window before the next launch window “even if that means a redesign around the closure of the instrument.” That suggests the launch may not be delayed more than two years, although NASA would not confirm that during a press conference Tuesday.
NASA also said the setback does not delay its overall ambitious goal to send humans to Mars.