NASA has delayed the launch of its next Mars probe after repeated attempts to repair a leak on the device failed.
The mission, Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight), was due to launch in March 2016, but the leak affected what NASA called the ‘prime instrument in the science payload’.
The instrument involved is a French seismometer that is designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom.
However, it requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
A leak occurred earlier this year that had prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions. This was later repaired and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix would be successful.
Unfortunately, during testing on Monday in extremely cold temperatures of -45°C , the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum.
“Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era,” said NASA mission director John Grunsfeld.
“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.
“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.”
InSight is designed to investigate the processes that formed and shaped Mars. Its findings will improve understanding about the evolution of the inner solar system's rocky planets, including Earth.
The lander will be the first mission to permanently deploy instruments directly onto Martian ground using a robotic arm.
The two instruments to be placed into a work area in front of the lander are a seismometer to measure the microscopic ground motions from distant marsquakes providing information about the interior structure of Mars, and a heat-flow probe.