NASA has said it intends to fix a leak found in its Mars probe, InSight, so that it can attempt a relaunch in 2018.
InSight, an abbreviation of Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport, has been designed to help us understand how rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.
The spacecraft had been on track to launch this month until a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument prompted NASA in December to suspend preparations for launch.
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 in its casing resulting from the wildly fluctuating temperatures in a Mars climate test environment has caused the vacuum to repeatedly fail.
The 22-cm spherical chamber holding the sensors has a leak so small that if a car tyre leaked at the same rate it could go three centuries without needing additional air. Nevertheless, it is significant enough to delay the probe’s launch by three years.
That setback raised questions about whether NASA would cancel the mission. But agency managers have said that the science goals were compelling and the plans for repairing the leak were sound.
NASA said it was reviewing how much the repair would cost, but the project's lead scientist last week estimated the price tag would be about $150m (£105m) above the $675m already budgeted.
The next time Earth and Mars will be properly aligned for InSight to launch is in May 2018. The spacecraft is set to arrive on Mars in November 2018 to begin a two-year mission.
NASA’s John Grunsfeld said: "The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”
NASA’s research into robotic spacecraft designed to explore the surface of Mars is extensive. In addition to InSight, the agency is also planning for the launch of the Mars rover in 2020, while the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are currently exploring the Martian surface. The Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft are already orbiting the planet, along with the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission orbiter
A team of researchers from the Netherlands recently cultivated ten different crops in simulated Mars soil, giving hope for the future of human colonisation on the Red Planet.