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4 December 2008

NASA Delays Robot Mars Life-Search Mission
Reuters Report

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – NASA said on Thursday that it will postpone by two years the planned launch of a major mission to study whether Mars was ever capable of harboring life, citing development and testing delays.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said the Mars Science Laboratory mission must be pushed back from next year in part because of problems with motors on the six-wheeled rover designed to operate on the unforgiving surface of the Red Planet.

The delay of the planned October 2009 launch to autumn 2011 is expected to add about $400 million to the program's cost, now estimated at $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion, said Doug McCuistion, director of the NASA Mars exploration program.

The mission is designed to assess whether the Martian environment is or ever was able to support microbial life. It is the latest in the exploration of Earth's neighbor, which scientists believe had abundant liquid water on the surface in the past and may have been home to some type of life forms.

"I have full confidence in the JPL team (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California) to be able to work through the difficulties, but we've determined that trying for '09 would require us to assume too much risk -- more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission like Mars Science Laboratory," Griffin told a news conference.

"A mission like this ranks just behind a manned mission in importance," Griffin said.

Griffin said if the U.S. space agency could delay launch by a few months, that probably would take care of the problem. "But launch opportunities for Mars don't allow that. They come every 26 months. So we either go in 2009 or 2011," he said.

The positions of Earth and Mars relative to one another as they orbit the sun are favorable for interplanetary flights for only a few weeks every two years, officials said.

SOPHISTICATED ROVER

NASA has placed robotic instruments on the Martian surface in the past, but officials called the rover at the heart of the Mars Science Laboratory mission more sophisticated.

After a nine-month journey to Mars, it is designed to operate for two years. Its instruments are part of a science payload 10 times bigger than those on NASA's previous Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, officials said.

It is designed to drive longer distances over rougher terrain than the previous rovers and will use a new surface propulsion system, officials said.

Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, said the delay was the right thing to do.

"This will allow for careful resolution of any remaining technical problems, proper and thorough testing and avoiding a mad dash to launch," Weiler said.

The rover's motors drive its wheels, operate its robotic arms and do other tasks. "We have anomalies, problems that we don't understand the cause of yet," McCuistion said.

He said the program was a few months behind schedule.

NASA has been looking at four possible landing sites where scientists believe there were wet conditions in the past. Water is considered a vital ingredient for the development of life.

Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the vast majority of the hardware has been completed.

McCuistion said the mission initially was pegged to cost $1.63 billion in 2006.

Other NASA programs may be delayed but likely not canceled because of the increased cost for this one, officials said.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh)

Source: Thomson Reuters


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