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NASA's next mission to Mars is delayed at least two years

A faulty science instrument causes a major setback

NASA has delayed the next planned mission to Mars indefinitely after discovering a fault in one of the lander’s key science components. The InSight lander was supposed to launch in March of 2016 and monitor seismic activity once it landed on Mars. It would have been the first mission to the Red Planet since the Curiosity rover landed in 2012. NASA has not officially announced the length of the mission delay, but it will likely be two years or more, according to Science.

A leak in the vacuum-sealed container that holds one of InSight’s science instruments was discovered on December 3rd by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The instrument, known as SEIS, was supposed to help InSight become what NASA was calling the "first project devoted to investigating the deep interior of the Red Planet." Essentially, the lander is purpose-built for sniffing out earthquakes (or "marsquakes"), and can measure movement in the ground as small as the width of an atom.

InSight was supposed to look for earthquakes (or "marsquakes")

That level of sensitivity requires that the instruments exist in a vacuum, and when the sphere was sealed, leaks were discovered. These leaks are "big enough that [they] would prevent us from accomplishing the mission," according to John Grunsfeld, NASA's science lead.

Efforts to repair the seal failed, and this morning NASA announced plans to delay the mission. "After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission," NASA said in a statement. "The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair an air leak on a key component of the mission’s science payload."

The SEIS instrument was supplied by the French space agency (CNES), and its president, Jean-Yves Le Gall, argued that the leak could be fixed in time. "We're not giving up resolving NASA Mars Insight lander instrument leak [sic]," Le Gall told SpaceNews earlier today. "We have till 5 January to nail it down."

Marc Pircher, the director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre, was less enthusiastic. "It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built," he said in a statement. "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."

NASA also believes there is not enough time to solve the problem and thoroughly test the solution before the launch, hence the suspension of the launch. Missions to Mars typically have fit into a small window where the orbits of both planets are close enough to make the trip economically feasible. For InSight, that window was March 4th to March 30th of 2016. Now, the spacecraft will likely have to wait until at least 2018.

Update December 22nd, 3:32PM ET: NASA has officially suspended the mission. This article has been changed to reflect the confirmation.