An other-worldly seismometer no more ...
On December 22nd the sad news came out that the earnestly anticipated InSight (Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission will not be launching this coming March and perhaps will never launch at all. The repercussions of this decision, beyond the seismically recorded foot-stomp from seismologists around the world when they first heard the news, will likely be vast. See the InSight mission was to be the first time ever that humankind had placed a seismometer on another planet (remember that the Apollo missions installed seismometers on the Moon but the Moon is a pithy 382,000 km away from Earth while Mars is 54,600,000 km!). Words cannot describe how unique and amazing the dataset acquired by the InSight mission would be. Within moments of analyzing the seismic traces acquired during the Apollo missions it was immediately obvious that the internal state of the Moon was vastly different than our home planet. Who knows what the traces from Mars would have revealed.
Numerous articles have already been written giving an overview of the technical challenges that led to this delay thus I will not attempt to summarize the same sad news here. Suffice it to say that in a twisted turn of fate the blame for this delay comes from the motivating instrument itself, the seismometer. As a field seismologist I know all to well the incredible sensitivity that allows these amazing instruments to record faint ground motion from earthquakes 1,000s of miles away. And it's this same sensitivity that motivates me to anxiously double and triple check locking mechanisms and bungee cords when we pack them into the backs of pickup trucks for field transport. Thus when I first learned of plans to strap such an instrument to the top of a gigantic rocket, shoot it into space, and hard-land it on the crater riddled surface of Mars I knew there would be ample complications to overcome.
My heart goes out to the scientists and engineers who are intimately involved in this mission and whose winter holidays were undoubtedly marred by news of this delay. I'll be keeping my fingers, toes, and all other extremities crossed that InSight will overcome this last obstacle and eventually launch. I know one day, whether that be two years from now or ten, we will place a seismometer on a distant world, millions of miles from our home, all in the aim for the joy of scientific discovery.