National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says it is postponing the launch of its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) until 2011. Officials said the original October 2009 launch is no longer feasible because of "testing and hardware challenges" that must be addressed to ensure mission success.
NASA said the relative positions of Earth and Mars are favourable for flights to Mars only a few weeks every two years. The next launch opportunity after 2009 is in 2011. The setback to 2011 will add $400 million to the spacecraft's cost, raising its total price to as much as $2.3 billion.
The extra $400 million, spread over 2011 to 2014, will come from other Mars missions and perhaps other planetary explorations, said NASA's Ed Weiler at the briefing. NASA will consult with planetary scientists on their priorities before it shifts money from other programs, such as a 2013 "scout" mission to Mars.
"We see too much risk for a flagship mission," NASA chief Mike Griffin said at a briefing in Washington, DC. He cited unexpected difficulties that NASA is having with the manufacture and control of 31 "actuator" gearbox motors aboard the subcompact-size rover.
"We will not lessen our standards for testing the mission's complex flight systems, so we are choosing the more responsible option of changing the launch date," said Doug McCuistion, director of the space agency's Mars Exploration Program.
Earth and Mars have to be at specific points in their respective orbits for a spacecraft to successfully traverse the distance between them. This "orbital window" opens every 26 months, leaving too little time for MSL engineers to correct the actuator problems next year, explained McCuistion. The next launch window opens in 2011, from November to December, he said, with the exact launch date determined once NASA engineers have chosen the landing site on the Martian surface.
NASA said the Mars Science Laboratory, intended to study the early environmental history of the planet, will be one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever designed, equipped with unprecedented research tools.
It will use new technologies to adjust its flight while descending through the Martian atmosphere and will place its rover onto the planet's surface by lowering it on a tether from a hovering descent stage, NASA said. The total science payload will be 10 times the mass of instruments that are on NASA's Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers.
Space enthusiasts expressed disappointment over the delay but accepted the need for it. "Mars exploration has always had its ups and downs," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena. "But if history has taught us one thing, it is that every setback has been ultimately followed by astounding new accomplishments, MSL will be worth waiting for."