Science

NASA sets the date for Martian robot drilling rig to lift off

Two years late, but InSight will fly

By Iain Thomson in San Francisco

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The much-delayed InSight probe's mission is back on, and NASA has set the launch date for May 5, 2018 and will (hopefully) land on the Martian surface on November 26 that year.

"The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "We're excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018."

NASA had hoped to blast the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) probe away from Earth last week, but the mission was put on hold after its primary instrument was damaged.

InSight caries a seismograph designed to measure Marsquakes across the planet and is sensitive enough to register many asteroid strikes on the planet. A vacuum leak during low-temperature testing damaged the seismograph and it is costing the French manufacturers $150m to repair it.

Also onboard is the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), a German-built probe that will be hammered down into the Martian crust, taking temperature measurements every 10 centimeters (3.9 inches). If all goes well, it'll get 5 meters (16.4 feet) down over the course of 23 months of drilling, and will give a better insight into the thermal energy generated by the planet's core.

NASA's chucked a couple of cameras and a weather station onto the probe, and a radar system that will work out how much the planet wobbles as it orbits the sun. Once it has unfolded its solar cells, InSight will spread across 5.5 metres (18 feet) of the Martian surface and should be operational for two years or more.

But if NASA engineering has taught us anything, we can expect to be getting data from InSight for a lot longer than that. The probe will generate 30GB slugs of data and fire them up to NASA's satellites – and the two CubeSat's it'll deploy before landing – before they are relayed back to Earth.

Barring mechanical breakdown, the probe's biggest problem is going to be dust accumulation on its solar panels. It's hoped that, as with other Mars probes, the planet's periodic storms will clean off the panels, but a static platform like InSight might not last as long as the Opportunity rover, which is now approaching 12 years of Martian exploration. ®

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