Exploration of Mars took a blow tonight when NASA announced a major delay in its next $2 billion mission. An unmanned robot vehicle that was due to be sent to the Red Planet next year will now not launch until 2011.
The nature of the orbits of Earth and Mars means that a mission can only be launched in a window lasting a few weeks every two years. In the intervening year, Mars lies too far away on the other side of the sun.
Now the mission – the most technically challenging ever – cannot be launched until late 2011, with the probe arriving around six months later in 2012. MSL is a bigger and far more complex version of two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that are still running about on Mars nearly five years after they arrived.
NASA administrator Mike Griffin said today: “Trying for ’09 would require us to assume too much risk, more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission.”
Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program in Washington, said: “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.
“We’ve reached the point where we can not condense the schedule further without compromising vital testing.”
Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: “Despite exhaustive work in multiple shifts by a dedicated team, the progress in recent weeks has not come fast enough. The right and smart course now for a successful mission is to launch in 2011.”
Picture: A NASA artist’s illustration of how the new rover will look.
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