Mars Science Laboratory Mission Delayed Two Years

by Nancy Atkinson on December 4, 2008

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Mars Science Lab rover. Credit: NASA

Mars Science Lab rover. Credit: NASA


NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory has been delayed for two years and will now launch in the fall of 2011. The decision to delay is based on various technical problems the MSL team has encountered and having enough time to work through the problems, as well as provide adequate time for testing all the systems on the car-sized rover. The main problems are the actuators, the gear boxes for all the moving parts. Mars program manager Doug McCuistion said the team is actually only a few months behind schedule, but in going to Mars, that doesn’t matter since a launch window to the Red Planet only comes once every 26 months. “We know these actuator motors must work on Mars and we’ve got anomalies on some of them we don’t understand,” said McCuistion. “It’s the right thing to delay the mission to take the appropriate time to understand the technical issues and test everything thoroughly.”

“Failure is not an option for this mission,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science.

The MSL mission will send a next-generation rover with unprecedented research tools to study the early environmental history of Mar, with the fundamental purpose to explore if the conditions for microbial life on Mars ever existed, or if they exist now.

The slip to 2011 will cost $400 million, making the total cost the mission about 2.2-2.3 billion in life cycle costs.

Weiler said there will some “pain” in planetary science and other Mars missions, but there will be paybacks, and no cancelations of any missions or programs are expected. There could be subsequent delays in other missions, however.

“There’s nobody who would like to launch in 2009 more than this team,” said JPL Director Charles Elachi. “These are the same people who put the face of NASA on the front page of newspapers the past few years with our other Mars missions. Unfortunately despite full support by NASA headquarters and the contractors, we just came a little short on time. The plan is to understand these technical issues, look for solution and do a very comprehensive test program. You can’t rely on luck to be successful on Mars.”

The vast majority of the hardware for the rover has been completed, but not everything is working well, particularly the actuators. NASA officials at today’s press conference all said they can’t send MSL to Mars without knowing everything they can about the issues with the actuators.

“The actuators are basically motors in a gear box,” said McCuistion. “All our landers have robotic actuators, and they enable the rover to do what they do: to drive and stop, they run the elbow and wrist join for the robotic arm and drills in sample handling devices. That’s why they are absolutely crucial to these missions. If the actuators can’t move, we essentially have junk on the surface of Mars.”

There are 31 different actuators on MSL, and 60 flight actuators and 45 engineering actuators are being built. Some of the problems have come from the manufacturing side with workmanship, and the most recent issue is drag torque issues within the devices. “The criticality and the number of these actuators is key,” said Elachi. “These actuators are much more massive than for MER mission since the MSL rover is about 8 times bigger, and they are very sophisticated.”

When asked if NASA had considered canceling the MSL mission, Griffin said absolutely not. “Before canceling I’d have to believe the project is going badly in a technical sense, but it’s not. When you’re doing things that have never been done before, you’re likely to encounter unforeseen difficulties. But just having difficulties is no cause to cancel. We had problems with Hubble, and we had problems with COBE, but I don’t think today anyone regrets having Nobel prize winning science from these missions. Unless you’re interested in building cookie cutter copies of previous spacecraft, and nobody is interested in doing that, you’ll encounter problems with hardware that’s never been built before.”

Source: NASA TV

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Don Alexander December 4, 2008 at 12:10 PM

Dang! So the launch window next year just goes unused…

And I guess the chances of having three working rovers on the ground goes wayyyyy down… :(

Skunkchump December 4, 2008 at 12:34 PM

This is the worst news all year!

NASA needs new management, THIS IS RIDICULOUS.
I understand that this stuff is not easy.
There are set-backs… I know.
This really pisses me off. I’m not sure if I’ll live that long!

I hope some of the change we may see will include NASA being a higher priority. (for everyone)

They chop and cut every mission that makes sense.

Ahh well, it’s ok….. we have plenty of time.

Mismanagement is the #1 problem.
Need for increased overall budget #2.

Bosco December 4, 2008 at 12:39 PM

They just delayed it out of existence. In good times Nasa is, at best, ignored. In less than optimum times it’s a whipping post for any pol to score points claiming ” .. there are too many problems here .. ” It’s done, it’s over, pull the plug now and save a few extra bucks.

Mr. Obvious December 4, 2008 at 12:57 PM

Those involved know the mission will not be cancelled, since it is near completion, and extending it will cost less than 5% of budget. More than likely, it is the project workers method of ensuring job security for a couple more years.

KG6YRA December 4, 2008 at 4:38 PM

It’s great they’re giving extra time to the engineers.

Id rather see a successful mission instead of a broken rover.

Chuck Lam December 5, 2008 at 7:28 AM

Imagine the technical problems and delays NASA will run into directing the design and construction of a space vehicle to transport a multi-person science team to the surface of Mars. If this scenario actually comes to pass; it will most likely be in the next two or three centuries. The recent patterns of failures and cost over-runs are mind boggling.

dollhopf December 5, 2008 at 4:32 AM

So this is still before next UEFA European Football Championship, followed by the 2012 Olympics in London.

The Olympic Games in 2012 are estimated to cost £9.345 billion (currently $13.7 billion). This is nearly four times more than the estimation when London’s bid succeeded in 2005. So 13 Billion dollars just to clarify that Michael Phelps is the best swimmer of all times?

In comparison, the MSL is supposed to take $2.25 billion in life cycle costs for to carry out Nobel prize winning science.

Jamie Kitchen December 5, 2008 at 11:13 AM

I agree with dollhopf. It is amazing how much coin is spent on ‘Goodwill’ crap that is powered by marketroids. The knowledge gained from this project combined with the atmospheric probe launching in 2013 will give us a clear view of the characteristics of mars’ atmosphere and climate since early on in the solar system.

But $400 million in extra costs? Must be a hell of a payroll on retainer for this project for teh next 2 years.

Astrofiend December 7, 2008 at 4:13 PM

Disappointing, but it’s the right thing to do. The current Mars rovers didn’t end up working for many, many times they’re rated lifetime by chance – it was thorough, top class, fastidious engineering that did it.

MSL has capability far beyond the current rovers. Being powered by an RTG, it may potentially last for a very long time on Mars doing great science. It would be simply unacceptable to risk the investment of money so far and the enormous potential for scientific discovery in an attempt to ensure launch by some arbitrary date. It’s only two years!

Astrofiend December 7, 2008 at 4:15 PM

“many times they’re rated lifetime by”

…make that ‘their’ rated lifetime.

wiz December 8, 2008 at 1:53 PM

NASA needs proper budget!

Space is the new frontier, we must go towards the stars!

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