The Mars Science Laboratory, a souped-up Mars rover scheduled to launch next year might be delayed, scaled down or canceled due to technical problems and cost overruns. The nuclear powered rover designed to search for microbial life on the Red Planet, has already cost $1.5 billion and if it reaches a 30-percent cost overrun, it could be cancelled by Congress. Aviation Week reports that officials from the agency’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will brief NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and Science Associate Administrator Ed Weiler this Friday and attempt to work out a potential solution. Delaying the rover’s mission until 2011 would be costly, but Weiler has said that JPL is so stretched trying to make the 2009 launch window that the result could be “a nuclear crater on Mars.”
Nearly the size of a small car, the proposed MSL will be three times as heavy and twice the width of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) that landed in 2004, and will be able to travel twice as far. It will carry ten advanced scientific instruments and cameras. It will make the first precise landing and a predetermined site, using a guided entry system and a soft-landing system called the Sky Crane. But assembly and testing of critical components and instruments are behind schedule because of technical problems.
Since there’s not much extra cash anywhere in NASA and JPL’s pot, any cost overruns from technical issues or delays would have to be taken from other missions. To keep MSL, NASA could be forced to cancel the $485 million 2013 atmospheric Scout mission MAVEN that was recently announced, or a future rover mission tentatively set for 2016.
A slip to the 2011 launch window will add another $300 million-$400 million to the price tag, but it could be better than trying to launch in 2009 with a rover and team that is potentially unready to fly.
Doug McCuistion, the MEP manager said his program is stretched to its limits, with no funding for technology development and “next to nothing” for education and public outreach.
NASA has been sending a mission to Mars approximately every two years to determine if the planet ever was capable of supporting life.
Sources: Aviation Week, MSNBC