Washington, D.C. – NASA decided to scrap plans of launching its next Mars in fall of next year. Instead, the organization will delay the mission by about two years and send the rover on its journey in 2011.
The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers remain one of the most successful and fascinating interplanetary mission ever conducted by NASA. Driven by the accomplishment, NASA planned to send a next-generation rover to Mars in October of 2009, a much more capable vehicle with more advanced research tools than what is currently available with Spirit and Opportunity, which were launched in June and July of 2003 and landed on Mars in January 2004.
NASA said that a 2009 launch date is no longer feasible because of “hardware challenges that must be addressed to ensure mission success.” NASA may be able to solve these problems long before 2011, but it said that the relative positions of Earth and Mars are favorable for flights to Mars only a few weeks every two years.
Because Earth and Mars take different periods of time to orbit the Sun (365.25 days for the Earth, and 686 days for Mars), the distance between Earth and Mars varies. At their closest, they are about 62 million miles apart, while the maximum distance is about 235 million miles. In a best-case scenario, the journey to Mars will take about six months.
“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,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“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.”
NASA claims that the new “advanced rover is one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever designed.” It will use new technologies to adjust its flight while descending through the Martian atmosphere, and to set the rover on the surface by lowering it on a tether from a hovering descent stage. Advanced research instruments make up a science payload 10 times the mass of instruments on NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. The Mars Science Laboratory is engineered to drive longer distances over rougher terrain than previous rovers and will get a new surface propulsion system.
NASA plans on drawing from the knowledge Spirit and Opportunity as well as orbiting spacecraft provided to find an ideal landing spot. NASA currently focuses on four “wet” landing sites: The rover will check for evidence of whether ancient Mars environments had conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and preserving evidence of that life if it existed there.