A leak in the main science instrument of NASA's InSight seismology mission to Mars forced the agency to scrap its March launch plan and reassess if the lander should fly at all.
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A nine-inch diameter vacuum sphere that holds the seismometer's sensitive sensors has been plagued by a series of leaks since August. The French space agency CNES, which built the instrument, thought it had finally licked the problem. But during a test at extremely cold temperatures on Monday, the sphere leaked again.
"We just have run out of time," NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
"We tried very hard to solve the problem," added CNES director Marc Pircher. "The sensitivity of our seismometer is very, very high but has to work at vacuum, and we have problem with this sphere."
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InSight is outfitted with three science instruments to look at seismic activity on Mars, heat flowing from the subsurface and the planet's wobble as it orbits the sun. The measurements were intended to give scientists their first detailed view of how the planet – and other rocky bodies like Earth – formed and evolved over time.
Mars and Earth align for launch opportunities every 26 months, so the earliest InSight can fly is May 2018. NASA must first figure out how to fix the leaks, including a possible redesign of the sphere, and how much that will cost. The mission's overall costs, including an Atlas 5 rocket to send the probe on its way to Mars, are capped at $675 million. NASA already has spent $525 million.
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