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NASA delays life-search mission to Mars

The US space agency has decided to delay its landmark mission to Mars until 2011. Citing development and testing delays, NASA will have to wait an extra two years before launching a mission to assess whether Mars can support life.


AFP - US space agency NASA delayed a landmark mission to Mars by 26 months on Thursday, adding another 400 million dollars to the already over-budget project to see if the red planet can support life, officials said.

"We will not be ready to launch Mars Science Lab by the hoped-for date next year," NASA administrator Michael Griffin told a news conference. A 2009 launch was ruled because it "would require us to assume too much risk."

"Because of a number of factors that need to be addressed, we are slipping the launch to 2011," he added.

Launch opportunities for Mars come every 26 months due to the alignment of the planets.

After autumn of 2009, the next window for launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) extends from October to December 2011.

Tacking two more years onto the mission will add around 400 million dollars to the cost of the project, pushing its total budget up to around 2.3 billion dollars, Griffin said.

The MSL was originally budgeted at 1.63 billion dollars in 2006.

"Failure is not an option on this mission," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate.

"The science is too important and the investment of American taxpayer dollars compels us to be absolutely certain that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission."

The delayed launch also likely means that other projects scheduled for launch in 2010 and 2011 will have to be put back, but no cancellations are planned, the officials said.

The Mars mission will follow in the treadmarks of Spirit and Opportunity, two rovers that landed on opposite sides of Mars in 2004 and then trekked across the planet's surface, conducting field geology and making atmospheric observations.

Both Spirit and Opportunity found evidence of environments where wet and habitable conditions once existed.

The MSL rover will be twice as long and three times heavier than Spirit and Opportunity.

After landing on the red planet around a year after launch, it will collect soil and rock samples and analyze them for organic compounds and environmental conditions that could have supported microbial life now or in the past.

Unresolved problems with actuator motors on the rover, which NASA says will carry the most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the surface of Mars, were the main reason for putting back the launch date.

The actuators are "very complicated devices that drive the wheels of rovers and are the elbow, shoulder and wrist joints for the robotic arm," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters.

"Actuators are absolutely crucial to any landed mission because if we get on the ground, can't move, can't get the arm out, can't take samples, we basically have a metric ton of junk on the surface," he said.

The Mars rover has 31 different actuators. NASA is building 60 flight actuators and 45 engineering model actuators for the mission.

NASA has not yet been able to test any of the actuators.

Problems with the devices have included faulty workmanship and trouble with the braking system, which McCuistion admitted "we don't understand yet."

The technical difficulties with MSL will not lead to the project's cancellation, Griffin insisted.

"If we cancelled everything on those grounds, we would have canceled Hubble. Does anyone in the science community regret building Hubble?" he said, referring to the space telescope launched 18 years ago that beamed dazzling images of space back to earth despite being dogged by numerous problems.

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