NASA said Thursday that it would launch its Mars Science Laboratory, with a next-generation rover, two years later than originally planned. The mission will send new research tools to try to shed light on the environmental history of Mars.
Scientists will choose one of four possible landing sites so the mission can explore the Martian surface where an orbiter's images indicate the presence of moisture or water in the past. The rover will search for evidence of whether ancient Mars could have supported microbial life.
NASA said that testing and hardware problems caused the delay. Those problems are unlikely to be corrected by late October 2009 and NASA cannot launch the mission for more than a year after that because the alignment of Earth and Mars are favorable for just a few weeks every two years.
"We will not lessen our standards for testing the mission's complex flight systems, so we are choosing the more responsible option of changing the launch date," Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "Up to this point, efforts have focused on launching next year, both to begin the exciting science and because the delay will increase taxpayers' investment in the mission. However, we've reached the point where we cannot condense the schedule further without compromising vital testing."
Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said that despite "exhaustive work in multiple shifts by a dedicated team," progress has been too slow.
"The right and smart course now for a successful mission is to launch in 2011," he said.
NASA called the advanced rover one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever. The mission will use new technologies to steer its path on the descent into the Martian atmosphere. NASA said that the payload will be 10 times the mass of instruments on the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. The rover will be lowered onto the Martian surface using a tether. A new surface propulsion system and other advancements will allow it to drive longer distances over rougher terrains that previous rovers.
Recent tests and assessments showed that key parts of the spacecraft should be reengineered, NASA said.
"Costs and schedules are taken very seriously on any science mission," Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, said in a statement. "However, when it's all said and done, the passing grade is mission success."