It was a great week for the private space sector, but not so good for NASA. The agency announced this week its InSight spacecraft, which had a planned March 2016 launch to Mars, has been suspended indefinitely due to a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload. InSight would have studied the interior of the Red Planet, and add to the gobs research currently being collected by NASA’s Curiosity rover.
When the leak was discovered earlier this summer, NASA scientists initially thought they had come up with a fix. However, another leak sprung up, followed by another. After several fixes, NASA performed some last minute experiments to test the spacecraft’s integrity, and found that InSight would not have survived the harsh conditions on the Martian planet.
As much as NASA wanted to launch the spacecraft, a leak meant the agency really had no other choice.
“InSight’s investigation of the Red Planet’s interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth formed and evolved,” explained Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator. “Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets’ early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks. Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this.”
NASA said it is committed to finding a fix, but it won’t be in time for a 2016 launch. Launching missions from Earth to Mars is only favorable for a few weeks every 26 months due to relative positions of the planets. Even if NASA did figure out how to plug the leaks sometime next year, the only real launch window exists from March 4 to March 30.
This isn’t the first time NASA has had to postpone a big launch. In 2008, the agency delayed the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission for two years. “The successes of that mission’s rover, Curiosity, has vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay,” said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division.