NASA’s next Mars mission is a go. This week, the agency’s Science Mission Directorate approved the 5 May 2018 launch of the probe called InSight (Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport). By November of that year, scientists can expect to begin using InSight to study the deep interior of the Red Planet.
“Mars is the place” to study seismic activity on another planet, James Green, Planetary Sciences Division director at NASA, told Eos. NASA’s Viking landers had instruments to take seismic measurements, but, because they weren’t well seated onto Mars’s surface, the measurements didn’t quite work, Green said. With InSight, “this is really the first time we’re going to get high-quality seismic data of a terrestrial-sized planet,” he continued.
“Our robotic scientific explorers such as InSight are paving the way toward an ambitious journey to send humans to the Red Planet,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in Washington, D. C. “It’s gratifying that we are moving forward with this important mission to help us better understand the origins of Mars and all the rocky planets, including Earth.”
“We expect Mars to tell us then if it’s an active planet or not—so is it shaking? Are there Mars-quakes?” Green said. With the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment instrument, scientists have observed avalanches on Mars. So something’s shaking, Green said, and he is optimistic that NASA will get “fabulous data right off the bat.”
Originally set to launch in March of this year, the $675 million project was delayed due to a vacuum leak in its primary instrument, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure. The instrument is designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom, and it needs perfect seals around its main sensors, which operate in a vacuum. With this instrument, NASA scientists can study any potential seismic activity on the planet to help prepare for crewed missions.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been tasked with redesigning the instrument. France’s space agency, the Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), will aid in developing sensors for the new instrument.
The delay, which will cost an extra $153 million, will not cancel or delay any current missions, NASA reported.
—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer