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Mars Mission Back on Track as NASA Looks to Launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2018

NASA’s suspended mission to Mars from Vandenberg Air Force Base may get to launch after all — two years later than planned.

Space agency officials announced that the program is targeting liftoff during a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with landing on the Red Planet planned for Nov. 26, 2018.

An announcement of a possible launch date comes months after NASA suspended the mission, which once was scheduled for blastoff this month from Vandenberg.

The mission — officially the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, or InSight — will study the deep interior of Mars and involves an international partnership.

In December, NASA said the team had been wrestling with a series of very small vacuum leaks considered big enough to interfere with the mission since the leaks involved the prime science instrument.

The sensors on the main instrument must operate in a vacuum within a sealed sphere to provide what officials called “exquisite sensitivity” needed for measuring extremely small ground movements.

InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and its French counterpart, Centre National d’tudes Spatiales (CNES), on what they called a path forward to fix the flaw.

Mission managers supported the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument in time for the 2018 launch attempt.

“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.”

InSight is scheduled to ride a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-3.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will redesign, build and conduct qualifications of the new vacuum enclosure for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the component that failed in December.

Orbital mechanics also must be considered in planning for InSight’s departure since missions to Mars only have launch opportunities every 26 months to ensure Earth and Mars are lined up properly.

When NASA officials suspended the InSight mission, they said the 2018 launch opportunity actually was more favorable than this year’s.

France’s space agency will lead instrument-level integration and test activities, allowing the InSight team to take advantage of each organization’s proven strengths, NASA officials said.

Both agencies worked closely to establish a project schedule that accommodates the plan, with interim reviews scheduled over the next six months to assess technical progress and continued feasibility, NASA said.

“The rework of the seismometer’s vacuum container will result 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,” NASA officials said in a statement.

Just how much the two-year delay will cost remains unknown, with an estimate expected in August, NASA officials said.

“The shared and renewed commitment to this mission continues our collaboration to find clues in the heart of Mars about the early evolution of our solar system,” said Marc Pircher, director of CNES’ Toulouse Space Centre.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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