The mission had intended to launch an unmanned, stationary lander to Mars to drill deep into the surface and understand how it was formed in the early days of the Solar System.
Officially known as the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport craft, the 350kg, 5.5 metre long lander is designed to land close to the Martian equator, and conduct experiments for at least two years. It will measure seismic activity, heat flow, estimate the size of the core of the planet and study the effect of meteorite impacts.
In its most recent update, Nasa had applauded the delivery of the spacecraft to California, ahead of its March launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
But due to a long-standing problem with a French space agency-designed vacuum container, in which its main sensors, part of the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) are housed, Nasa has reportedly been forced to the brink of puting the launch back.
The problem itself is seemingly relatively simple — the sphere containing three highly sensitive instruments is leaking — but it will take too long to fix for the craft to be launched within a critical geometric window in which relatively short journeys between Earth and Mars are possible.
The next window will open in roughly 26 months, sometime in mid-2018.
“After thorough examination, Nasa managers have decided to suspend the March 2016 launch,” Nasa said in a note to journalists on Tuesday, SpaceNews.com reported. However the French space agency CNES says that all hope is not lost, with the agency’s president Jean-Yves Le Gall telling the SpaceNews that it was not 100 percent sure the leak was as damaging as it appears. Le Gall said it is possible the problem is actually with the measuring system reporting false positives, and added that it’s possible the mission could go ahead if the issue is fixed by 5 January.
Nasa is said to be holding a press conference at 8.30 PM UK time to discuss the decision.
Based largely on the Mars Phoenix craft that landed on the planet in 2008, InSight beat a mission to the hydrocarbon oceans of Titan and a separate plan to study a comet to win Nasa funds for the 2016 launch. Expected to cost a total of $425 million, the mission would have been the first interplanetary launch from the California Air Force base.