Testing glitches delay launch of NASA's $2B Mars super rover

After Mars Science Laboratory misses deadline, next window of opportunity is 2011

Testing and hardware problems are pushing back the launch of NASA's $2.3 billion Mars super rover from next fall to 2011, the space agency announced today.

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said during a press conference this afternoon that the program has been held up by problems with both the hardware and the extensive testing needed to send a robotic machine to work on Mars. He noted that the issues might end up only delaying them for a matter of weeks, but even that small amount of time would push them past the window for a 2009 or 2010 launch.

Because of the positioning of Earth and Mars, there are only a few weeks every few years that are favorable for sending a space craft to the Red Planet. After next fall, the next launch opportunity is in 2011.

"We need to make sure we have a robust system to fly to the planet," said McCuistion. "The way to do that is to test it within an inch of its life, if you will. This is the right thing to do."

He said the delay will add about $400 million to the cost of the project, bringing the total to between $2.2 billion and $2.3 billion.

This next-generation rover, dubbed the Mars Science Laboratory, is one piece in an ongoing exploration of Mars. Scientists have been using two existing rovers, a robotic lander and an orbiting spacecraft to study the planet and determine if the elements to support life, or even if life itself, exists there.

Just last month, NASA's Phoenix Lander died in the Martian darkness after five months of digging up and analyzing soil samples verifying the existence of ice and finding that snow falls from Martian skies.

And with the success that NASA has had with the two rovers working on Mars, there's a lot of excitement brewing to send up a new one.

Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted that the new rover is the most challenging mission that the laboratory has ever undertaken.

"People worked their tails off," he added. "Despite all of our efforts and full NASA support ... we just came in a little short. Clearly, the team is disappointed, but we're not disheartened ... Mars is an unforgiving planet. We can't rely on luck to make us successful."

Elachi noted that most of the hardware for the rover is ready to go.

NASA reported, though, that there have been various issues, including bearings that weren't properly installed, coder sensitivity and problems with the braking system. The agency pointed out, though, that there were never any thoughts of canceling the mission.

The SUV-size super rover is designed to carry three different kinds of cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors. According to NASA, all of these instruments are designed to help scientists figure out whether life ever existed on Mars and to prepare to send humans to the Red Planet.

The machine will also use new technologies to adjust its descent through the Martian atmosphere, and it's designed to be lowered to the planet's surface by a tether connected to a hovering "descent stage," according to NASA. It will also carry a science payload 10 times greater than those carried by the two rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- already working on Mars.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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