NASA Mars mission walking a tightrope to launch this year

nasa curiosity
Three critical issues and numerous smaller problems could threaten the planned launch of NASA's ambitious Mars Science Laboratory this year - a delay that could add millions of dollars to the lab's current $2.5 billion cost.

Those were the chief findings from the NASA Inspector General in a report issued this week that detailed the potential delay issue. 

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"Due to planetary alignment, the optimal launch window for a mission to Mars occurs every 26 months. MSL was scheduled to launch in a window between September and October 2009. However, in February 2009, because of the late delivery of several critical components and instruments, NASA delayed the launch to a date between October and December 2011, the report stated.

"This delay and the additional resources required to resolve the underlying technical issues increased the Project's development costs by 86%, from $969 million to the current $1.8 billion, and its life-cycle costs by 56%, from $1.6 billion to the current $2.5 billion. If the Project is delayed to a late 2013 launch, NASA's costs would further increase, at least by the $570 million that would be required to redesign the mission to account for differences in planetary alignment and the Martian dust storm season."

The report acknowledged that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) "is the most technologically challenging interplanetary rover -- known as Curiosity -- ever designed. This NASA flagship mission will employ an array of new technologies to adjust its flight while descending through the Martian atmosphere, including a sky crane touchdown system that will lower the rover on a tether to the Martian surface. Contributing to the complexity of the mission are the Project's innovative entry, descent, and landing system; the size and mass of the rover (four times as heavy as the previous Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity); the number and interdependence of its 10 science instruments; and a new type of power generating system."

The good news is that the inspector's reports says the MSL Project has overcome the key technical issues that were the primary causes of the 2-year launch delay. As of March 2011 all critical components and instruments have been installed on the rover. Project managers expected to complete integration of equipment by May 2011 and ship MSL to Kennedy for flight preparation by June 2011.

But there are three unresolved issues: Contamination of rock and soil samples collected by the lab's Sample Acquisition/Sample Processing and Handling (SA/SPaH) subsystem and development of flight software and the fault protection systems.  The SA/SPaH subsystem, which will acquire soil and rock samples from the Martian surface and deliver them to other instruments on the rover for analysis. The fault protection system is an engineering design that will enable MSL's instruments and equipment that do not perform as expected to continue operating at a reduced level rather than fail completely, the report states.

"In addition, approximately 1,200 reports of problems and failures observed by Project personnel remained open as of February 2011. If these reports are not resolved prior to launch, there is a possibility that an unknown risk could materialize and negatively affect mission success. The resolution of these and other issues that may arise during final integration is likely to strain the already limited margin managers built into the Project's schedule to allow for unanticipated delays."

The report noted too that the problems that remain might eat through $22 million worth of contingency money and require additional funds to fix. 

NASA, for its part said it has been addressing the report's concerns and is confident the launch will happen as planned. 

From the report: "The Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate concurred with our recommendations and stated the Directorate had been conducting weekly monitoring and ongoing assessments of the Project's funding status, expenditures, and remaining work. According to these assessments, the Project's budget, coupled with $22 million in Directorate-held reserves, will be sufficient for MSL to achieve a timely and safe launch. In addition, the Associate Administrator stated that MSL Project management has developed a plan to address all open [problems] and expected to close all relevant [reports] by the time of the MSL launch."

NASA added that the software that will control Curiosity's movements on Mars will continue even after the rover's launch.

For now the Mars mission is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18. It is expected to land on mars sometime after August 2012.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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