Launch of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover delayed until 2011

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Artist's impression of the Mars Science Laboratory rover searching for life on Mars
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA announced a delay to its next planned mission to Mars at a news conference on Thursday, 4th of December. The Mars Science Laboratory was due to launch in 2009, but lift off will now not occur until 2011 because more time was required for tests, causing the rover to miss its launch window. This delay comes just 2 months after the European Space Agency (ESA) delayed their planned ExoMars mission until 2016. Commenting on the delay of the MSL, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said, "[t]rying for '09 would require us to assume too much risk, more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission".

The MSL was due to feature several new technologies, including a hovering platform that would lower the rover onto the surface, and new atmospheric entry methods. Atmospheric entry into Mars has always been a difficult prospect for scientific probes with many probes being lost. The most recent loss was in 2003: the British Beagle 2 probe, which was due to land on a series of inflated balloons, but was never heard from after entering the atmosphere. It is the additional testing time required by changes to these technologies that has caused it to miss the October 2009 launch window. Due to the orbits of Mars and Earth, interplanetary travel between them is only feasible every two years for a window of a few weeks.

What do you think of NASA's decision to postpone this mission? Are you worried about the financial impact on future missions?

The delays and additional fabrication and testing have inflated the budget of the project by an additional 400 million US dollars, bringing the total to $2.4 billion. These increasing costs of Mars missions are what forced the decision by the ESA to delay its ExoMars mission, and they have now prompted talk of increased co-operation on future missions. The respective chief scientists at NASA and the ESA, Dr Ed Weiler and David Southwood, have already engaged in preliminary talks about such co-operation, and there is now talk of NASA joining the ESA on its ExoMars mission. Dr Weiler, speaking on such a possibility, said "It is going to take some real scientists and engineers getting together and working that out. But is there a possibility it could become a joint mission? Absolutely. And we're certainly open to it and would welcome it."