2016 Launch of NASA’s InSight Mars Lander Postponed Due to Instrument Vacuum Leak

Artist's concept of NASA's InSight Mars lander fully deployed for studying the deep interior of Mars. NASA has suspended the launch of the mission which had been planned for March 2016 until at least 2018 due to a vacuum leak in the seismometer instrument provided by France’s Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES).  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA managers have just made the difficult but unavoidable decision to scrub the planned March 2016 launch of the InSight lander, the agency’s next mission to Mars, by at least two years because of a vacuum leak that was just detected in the probes flawed seismometer instrument which cannot be fixed in time.

The leak, if uncorrected, would render the probes useless to carry out the unprecedented scientific research foreseen to measure the planets seismic activity and sense for “Marsquakes” to determine the nature of the Red Planets deep interior.

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, announced the decision to suspend the InSight launch at a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, Dec. 23.

“We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we’re not ready to launch in the 2016 window,” said Grunsfeld.

Grunsfeld explained that there is simply insufficient time to locate and reliably repair the seismometer instrument leak in the short time span of barely over two months remaining until the opening of the Atlas rockets launch window to the Red Planet on March 4. The window only extends to March 30.

“We just haven’t had time to work through that because our focus was on getting ready to launch.”

The seismometer instrument is named Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and was provided by the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) – the French national space agency equivalent to NASA. SEIS is one of the two primary science instruments aboard InSight. The other instrument measuring heat flow from the Martian interior is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The leak in the seismometer was initially discovered earlier this year. After several unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of instrument, engineers thought they had solved the problem until a new test was conducted on Monday, Dec. 21 and revealed another leak due to a faulty weld somewhere.

“A leak earlier this year that previously had prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions was repaired, and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix also would be successful,” said NASA.

“However, during testing on Monday in extreme cold temperature (-49 degrees Fahrenheit/-45 degrees Celsius) the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum.”

It was at that point that NASA and CNES managers decided that the hoped for 2016 launch would have to be postponed.

“As of yesterday, we were still planning to go,” Grunsfeld elaborated during the briefing.

SEIS must hold a vacuum of least one tenth of a millibar in order for the instrument to operate satiffactorily and conduct its research into the Red Planet’s seismic actitivty.

InSight is NASA’s next mission to Mars. It is a stationary lander based on the proven design of NASA’s Phoenix lander which touched down on the Red Planet in 2008.

InSight would have joined NASA’s pair of mobile rovers on Mars, Curiosity and Opportunity, to unlock the mysteries of the Red Planet

The earliest opportunity to possibly launch Insight is now deferred to mid-2018, since launch windows to Mars only occur approximately every 26 months due to the positions of Earth and Mars in their orbits and the unavoidable physics of celestial mechanics.

However, due to the elusive nature of fixing the leak and unavoidable and unbudgeted costs to store the probe, it is not clear whether InSight will even be launched in 2018.
The decision on when and whether to launch InSight will not be conclusively decided for at least several months while NASA and CNES further investigate the nature if the leak.
“A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars,” Grunsfeld noted.

SEIS is designed to “measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom and requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.”

The SEIS instrument measures about 9 inches wide. It was to be picked up from the lander deck and deployed to the surface using a robotic arm.

“It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built. We were very close to succeeding, but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation. Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won’t be solved in time for a launch in 2016,” said Marc Pircher, Director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre.

“InSight’s investigation of the Red Planet’s interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California.

“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.”

Until Monday, the teams had all been confident that the SEIS leak had been repaired. Indeed the probe just arrived at the launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for blastoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

InSight will most likely be shipped back to prime contractor Lockheed Martin in Denver for long term storage until a final decision on the future outcome is decided.

The total budgeted cost of the mission was cost capped at $675 million and about $525 million has already been spent, said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, at the briefing.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post 2016 Launch of NASA’s InSight Mars Lander Postponed Due to Instrument Vacuum Leak appeared first on Universe Today.

Dawn Spacecraft Unraveling Mysteries of Ceres Intriguing Bright Spots as Sublimating Salt Water Residues

This representation of Ceres' Occator Crater in false colors shows differences in the surface composition.  Occator measures about 60 miles (90 kilometers) wide.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

With NASA’s Dawn spacecraft set to enter its final and lowest orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, spectral measurements are enabling researchers to gradually unravel the nature of the numerous mysterious and intriguing bright spots recently discovered and now conclude that briny mixtures of ice and salts apparently reside just beneath certain patches of the pockmarked surface and that “water is sublimating” from the surface of an “active crater”.

Indeed, excited scientists report that high resolution images and spectra from Dawn indicate that Ceres is an active world even today, according to a pair of newly published scientific papers in the journal Nature.

Ceres occupies a very ”unique niche” unlike any other world in our Solar System with “occasional water leakage on to the surface,” Dawn Principal Investigator Chris Russell told Universe Today.

Orbital measurements from the probes Framing camera reveal that the bright areas likely contain hydrated magnesium sulphates, a class of mineral salts found inside the brightest spot on Ceres, namely Occator crater – which are the salt-rich leftover residues from water evaporation.

The newly released results also show evidence of a diffuse haze of water vapor above Occator crater, which appears to be among the youngest features on Ceres, as well as at a second region at Oxo crater.

The Cerean haze is formed by the warming effects of sunlight shining on the hydrated salts inside the crater. The salts were exposed by past impacts of asteroids all across Ceres. The haze could be comprised of “condensed-ice or dust particles.”

“The Occator crater on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres is active: data from NASA’s Dawn mission indicate water sublimating from its center,” say Dawn researchers in a statement.


Video caption: Ceres Rotation and Occator Crater. Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in these false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials. Images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft were used to create a movie of Ceres rotating, followed by a flyover view of Occator Crater, home of Ceres’ brightest area. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“Of particular interest is a bright pit on the floor of crater Occator that exhibits probable sublimation of water ice, producing haze clouds inside the crater that appear and disappear with a diurnal rhythm. Slow-moving condensed-ice or dust particles9, 10 may explain this haze,” write the authors in the Nature paper.

Occator is the brightest of more than 130 strikingly bright patches spread across the Texas-sized world, which ranks as the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It has an average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers).

NASA says Occator is a rather new impact crater, formed by an asteroid impact as recently as only 70 million years.

“The most plausible interpretation of our results is that there is a mixture of ice and salts under at least some parts of Ceres’ surface,” says lead study author Andreas Nathues of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, in a statement.

“This material could be exposed by the impacts of medium-sized asteroids. The ice gradually evaporates until only salts and phyllosilicates are left.”

The mysterious bright spots inside Occator crater – looking somewhat like a pair of alien eyes – were only discovered earlier this year as NASA’s Dawn orbiter was on its final approach to Ceres.

Occator measures about 60 miles (90 kilometers) across and 2 miles (4 kilometers) deep. It also features a central pit “covered by this bright material, that measures about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide and 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) deep. Dark streaks, possibly fractures, traverse the pit. Remnants of a central peak, which was up to 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) high, can also be seen,” say officials.

Prior to entering orbit on March 6, 2015, scientists speculated that Ceres might harbor a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could be hospitable to life.

Now with new data in hand, the presence of a large subsurface ocean of liquid water or water ice appears ever more likely.

“The global nature of Ceres’ bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice,” noted Nathues, who is also lead investigator of the Framing camera team.

The bright spots of Occator have captivated popular imaginations worldwide even as scientists struggled mightily, until recently, to explain what they really are.

Possible explanations ranging from frozen ices, salts and cryovolcanoes have been proposed for the past year as researchers sought to gather measurements explaining their elusive cause.

“We are currently probably seeing remnants of an evaporation process exhibiting different stages in different locations. Perhaps we are witnessing the last phase of a formerly more active period”, says Nathues.

To date, there has been no unambiguous detection of water ice on the surface of Ceres.
“Occasional water leakage on to the surface could leave salt there as the water would sublime,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator told Universe Today recently in an exclusive.

“The big picture that is emerging is that Ceres fills a unique niche.”

“Ceres fills a unique niche between the cold icy bodies of the outer solar system, with their rock hard icy surfaces, and the water planets Mars and Earth that can support ice and water on their surfaces,” Russell, of the University of California, Los Angeles, told me.

On Oct. 23, Dawn began a seven-week-long dive that uses ion thruster #2 to reduce the spacecrafts vantage point from 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) at the High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) down to less than 235 miles (380 kilometers) above Ceres at the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO).

Dawn is slated to arrive at LAMO by mid-December, just in time to begin delivering long awaited Christmas treats.

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target where it conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.

The mission is expected to last until at least March 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.

“It will end some time between March and December,” Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, told Universe Today.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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