NASA‘s next robotic Mars explorer may be meticulously designed to trundle over the Martian landscape, but it’s having trouble getting off the planet Earth. Huge cost overruns and technical difficulties may cause the $2 billion dollar [sic] Mars Science Laboratory to be delayed or canceled outright, members of a NASA advisory committee were warned on Oct. 2. “Our problem is enormous,” said Jim Green, director of the space agency’s Planetary Science Division, as project costs soar up to 40 percent above budget [McClatchy Newspapers].
The Mars Science Laboratory is currently scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009, which would get it to Mars the following year. Scientists have high hopes for the big rover, which is intended to study the geology and look for evidence of past microbial life in Mars’ distant past, when liquid water flowed on the planet. But the Science Lab is four times heavier than the current rovers trundling across the planet’s surface. It features a plethora of advanced tools and instruments designed to analyze rocks, soil, and atmosphere. [T]hat complexity has led to technical troubles and higher costs [Science, subscription required].
Mars scientists are also worried that the Science Lab’s cost overruns may force NASA to take money from other Mars missions, and could even cause the cancellation of one of the next two missions, which are scheduled for launch in 2013 and 2016. The recently announced 2013 mission is intended to probe the atmosphere of Mars from orbit, while the 2016 mission, which is now under consideration, might include a small rover that would test sample-collection techniques that could be used in an eventual effort to return a sample of Martian rock to Earth.
The Science Lab project has been delayed by numerous technical problems, including the late delivery of essential parts from contractors, and officials say that if they rush engineers to complete the rover in time for a 2009 launch they may be inviting human errors. A slip to the 2011 launch window will add another $300 million-$400 million to the price tag, but [Ed] Weiler worries [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] is so stretched trying to make the 2009 window that the result could be “a nuclear crater on Mars” from the rover’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator [Aviation Week].
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