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NASA Suspends Mars Mission From Vandenberg AFB

Ongoing series of small leaks, celestial mechanics mean InSight spacecraft launch won't occur for two years, if at all

Vandenberg Air Force Base’s first mission to Mars will have to wait at least two years as engineers ran out of time to wrestle with a glitch involving the lander’s key instrument and still make the deadline for a March blastoff.

NASA officials Tuesday announced the suspension of the 2016 InSight mission to the Red Planet, leaving open the possibility it could be canceled entirely. 

The suspension comes after the InSight spacecraft arrived at Vandenberg earlier this month in anticipation of the launch between March 4 and March 30.

Tuesday’s decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak involving the sphere that holds InSight’s primary instrument.

NASA officials said the InSight craft was sent to Vandenberg earlier than planned to leave time to integrate the key seismometer instrument developed by the French Space Agency, CNES, once the flaw was fixed.

Earlier this month, NASA officials said the key science instrument experienced a leak in the vacuum container carrying the main sensors. The sensors must operate in a vacuum within a sealed sphere to provide what officials called “exquisite sensitivity to ground motions.”

“Unfortunately, since last August we have been fighting a series of very small leaks — but leaks that are big enough that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish our mission,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Within the past few days another leak popped up, forcing Tuesday’s announcement, despite what NASA officials called valiant efforts to find and fix the flaw.

“We’re close enough to launch that unfortunately we don’t have enough time to try and identify the leak, fix it and recover and still make it to the launch pad in March,” Grunsfeld said. “We’re also wondering is it something inherent to the design, is it some other issue that we haven’t identified.

“In some sense, we don’t have a decision to make because we’re not ready to go. In another sense, I think it’s much better we have this discussion now, rather than sending it to Mars, and wishing we had the opportunity here on Earth to fix something while InSight was on its way to Mars,” he added. 

While seismometers operate on Earth, the one headed to Mars needs survive bigger temperature ranges, specifically super cold conditions. 

Celestial mechanics are complicating InSight’s departure.

“Mars is tough because it has launch opportunities only every 26 months, so if you know you’re going to miss the window that’s essentially game over, at least for this opportunity,” Grunsfeld said. 

The positions of the planets are most favorable for launching missions from Earth to Mars for only a few weeks every 26 months, NASA said. For InSight, that 2016 launch window existed from March 4 to March 30.

The next Mars launch opportunity arrives May 2018, and actually is more favorable than the 2016 window.

“This just reflects the difficulty when you challenge technology, when you challenge scientists and engineers to do something that has never been done before," Grunsfeld said of the delay. "Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want.”

Officials with NASA and its InSight partners will consider what they’re calling the path forward and hinted that one alternative may be canceling the mission. 

InSight is what NASA calls a cost-cap mission setting a tight budget and time frame under the agency’s rules. The program’s $675 million budget covered spacecraft, launch vehicle, landing, data analysis and more with $525 million already spent, NASA officials said Tuesday.

The price tag of storing the satellite and rocket and retaining the team weren’t available yet, officials said.

With the 2016 launch canceled, the spacecraft will be returned from Vandenberg to Lockheed Martin Corp.’s facility in Denver, NASA officials said.

InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport, is the first Mars mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of the Red Planet, NASA officials said.

“I think InSight is a very appropriate name for it because this was going to be our first mission and is our first mission, to explore the interior of Mars using the same kind of techniques that we’ve learned so much about the interior of Earth,”  said Grunsfeld.

Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at the Jet P ropulsion Laboratory, said he is “a little disappointed” at having to wait longer to get the scientific measurements about early planet formation and the structure of Mars.

“But I’m a very patient man,” Banerdt said. “I’ve been working toward getting these kinds of measurements for over the last 25 years of my career so I sort of see this as a minor setback rather than a disaster. 

“It’s not a disaster, it’s just a hiccup on our path to getting this kind of science and this kind of understanding of our solar system and our place in the universe,” Banerdt said.

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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