The next robotic explorer in NASA's ambitious Mars program will have to wait an extra two years before taking off towards the red planet, NASA officials announced yesterday. The Mars Science Laboratory was scheduled to lift off in the fall of 2009, but with
unsolved issues with some of the spacecraft’s electrical motors ... NASA officials no longer thought they could meet that schedule without rushing the testing program.“We’ve determined that trying for ‘09 would require us to assume too much risk, more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission like Mars Science Laboratory,” Michael D. Griffin, NASA’s administrator, said [The New York Times].
Because Earth and Mars only draw near to each other every 26 months, the next possible launch window will come in 2011. The new delay is just the latest bit of bad news regarding the Science Lab, which has busted deadlines and budgets since the project was approved in 2006. The rover was initially expected to cost $1.6 billion, but the new delay will push costs up to about $2.3 billion, NASA officials said. At a press conference yesterday, NASA administrators said they chose to delay the project because they didn't want to skimp on testing the rover in an attempt to stay on schedule.
"No one wants a $2 billion hole in the ground instead of a successful mission," said planetary scientist John Mustard of Brown University in Providence, who heads NASA's Mars program advisory panel. But "this is going to have ripple effects in the science community," he added [USA Today].
The extra $400 million that will be needed because of the delay will be drawn from other Mars missions and possibly missions to other planets, and will likely cause some further postponements or cancellations. The 2,000-pound Science Lab is bigger and heavier than anything that has ever been set down on Mars before, and its operation will be considerably more complex.
It will use new technologies to adjust its flight through the Martian atmosphere, and to lower the rover to the surface via a tether from a hovering descent stage. The laboratory will use a new surface propulsion system to drive longer distances over rougher terrain than previous rovers [Orlando Sentinel].
It's slated to roam near the equator for one Martian year (687 days), and will analyze rock samples in an attempt to learn whether the planet ever supported microbial life. Related Content: Bad Astronomy: Followup on MSL: Griffin's spin Bad Astronomy: NASA delays next Mars mission by two years 80beats: NASA Vows to Press Ahead With Over-Budget Mars Rover 80beats: Mars Science Lab Has Trouble Lifting Off; Might Make a “Nuclear Crater on Mars”Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech