It's said that "time waits for no man" — and the inexorable cycles of planetary motion do not wait for troubled spacecraft either.
Today NASA managers made official what many space aficionados had suspected for some time: the Mars Science Laboratory, a mission so ambitious and costly that it had earned "flagship" status, will be delayed two years due to technical challenges that made the planned launch in October 2009 untenable.
The revised timetable calls for MSL to launch in 2011, when Mars and Earth will again be well positioned in their respective orbits for the interplanetary flight.
The mission team has been struggling for more than a year to keep the troubled craft on schedule. In September 2007, Alan Stern, who had recently joined the agency as head of its space-science programs, announced that MSL had overspent its budget so badly that two experiments would be dropped from the payload. Hard bargaining thereafter allowed the two packages to remain on board, but by then the ambitious construction and testing schedule had already become worrisome.
Last October, after a thorough review earlier this year, NASA managers announced that the mission was still a "go" for 2009, even though rising costs pushed the total price tag to about $2 billion. Then, just a month later, a scientific oversight panel forced the mission team to eliminate equipment that would have been used to scoop up surface samples rock for possible retrieval and transport to Earth by a future lander.
The two-year delay means that engineers will have enough time to make sure the spacecraft is really ready to made the trip. "Failure on this mission is not an option, the science is too important," noted Ed Weiler, who replaced Stern earlier this year as manager of NASA's space-science efforts. But the postponement will likely add another $400 million to MSL's price tag — funds that will be hard to come by as the agency struggles to build its next-generation craft for human exploration while maintaining its aging Space Shuttle fleet.
Weighing in at more than 2,000 pounds (925 kg), the Mars Science Laboratory will be the largest rover yet to ramble across the Red Planet. It will be a long-duration mission, operating for two years and powered by the decay of plutonium. The ambitious 154-pound payload of 10 instruments includes a laser-camera combo dubbed ChemCam that can vaporize bits of rocks up to 30 feet away and then deduce chemical compositions from the resulting puffs of vapor.