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Mars Science Lab launch delayed for two years

WASHINGTON (CNN) – NASA’s launch of the Mars Science Laboratory — hampered by technical difficulties and cost overruns — has been postponed until fall 2011, NASA officials said at a Thursday news conference in Washington.

An illustrative photo of a laser-equipped vehicle that is expected to be part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

The launch of the mission was scheduled for fall 2009.

The Mars Science Lab is a large nuclear-powered rover designed to travel long distances with a suite of science instruments on board.

According to NASA’s website, it’s part of a “long-term robotic exploration effort” established to “study the early environmental history of Mars” and assess whether Mars once was – or still is – able to sustain life. .

The launch delay, according to NASA, is due to a number of “testing and hardware challenges that must (still) be resolved to ensure mission success.”

“Progress over the past few weeks has not been fast enough to resolve technical issues and gather hardware,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Moving to a 2011 launch “will allow for careful resolution of all remaining technical issues, proper and thorough testing, and avoid a mad rush to launch,” NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler said.

The overall cost of the Mars Science Lab is now expected to be around $2.1 billion, according to NASA spokesman Dwayne Browne. The project originally had a price tag of $1.6 billion.

NASA’s total budget for the current fiscal year, according to Browne, is about $15 billion.

According to NASA, the Mars rover will use new technologies and be designed to explore greater distances over more rugged terrain than previous missions to the planet. This will be done in part by using a new surface propulsion system.

“Failure is not an option on this mission,” Weiler said. “Science is too important, and the investment of American taxpayers’ money requires us to be absolutely certain that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission.”

Weiler said that, based on the agency’s preliminary assessments, the additional costs associated with the Science Lab’s launch delay would not result in the cancellation of other NASA programs over the next two years. He admitted, however, that this would lead to other unspecified program delays.

Critics have claimed that the delays and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab are indicative of an agency plagued by a lack of accountability and inefficiency in managing taxpayers’ time and money.

“The Mars Science Laboratory is just the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending,” former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern wrote in a Nov. 24 op-ed in the New York. Times. “A cancer is creeping into our space agency: the routine compliance with huge cost increases in projects.”

Stern accused the agency’s cost overruns of being fueled by “managers who disguise the magnitude of the cost increases missions are incurring” and “members of Congress who agree to steep increases to protect local jobs.” .

Browne responded in a written statement saying NASA administrators are “constantly working to improve (the agency’s) cost estimating capabilities. … We are continually reviewing our projects to understand the true performance risk.” , costs and schedule”.

“The fact of life at NASA, where we’re tasked with creating unprecedented science discovery missions, is that estimating the costs of … science can be almost as difficult as doing science,” Browne said. .

NASA’s most recent Mars project – the Phoenix Mars Lander mission – ended last month after the solar-powered vehicle’s batteries ran out following a dust storm and the start of the martian winter. It had operated two months beyond its initial three-month assignment.

NASA officials had landed the vehicle on an arctic plain after satellite observations indicated there were large amounts of frozen water in that area, most likely in the form of permafrost. They thought such a place would be a promising place to search for organic chemicals that would signal a habitable environment.

Scientists have been able to verify the presence of water ice in the Martian subsoil, find small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life and observe snow falling from clouds, NASA announced Thursday.

Everything on Mars Exploration • NASA

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