February 2, 2011

Mars Rover Mission Just Got More Expensive

NASA's next-generation Mars rover is now expected to command a price tag of $2.5 billion.

NASA, which has delayed the launch of its next-generation Mars rover by more than two years, said it has burned through its reserves for the project and needs an extra $82 million to complete testing before launch.

It's the latest cost setback to plague the Mars Science Laboratory -- a nuclear-powered rover the size of a small SUV which will be used to study whether the planet had or still does have life -- which has had several snags during development. The rover, known as Curiosity, now has a tentative launch date for some time in November at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 2.5 billion dollar price tag makes this the most expensive mission to Mars to date.

NASA announced the setback last week to members of the planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, which provides input to the space agency. The latest budget crisis stemmed from issues that arose during testing of the rover's avionics system, landing radar and drill that took much more time and money to fix than original predicted.

Arizona State University planetary scientist, Ronald Greeley, who is chairman of the Advisory Council, said he was disappointed about the latest cost increase, but still supports the program fully. "We want that mission to fly," Greeley told The Associated Press (AP).

Arizona State University astronomer Jim Bell, however, said that the costs needed to bring the rover to the launch pad are relatively small compared to what has already been spent. Bell works on the long-running twin Mars rovers mission.

Some researchers are bracing for possible cutbacks to their projects to cover the latest cost increase for the Mars rover program.

"It's unavoidable that there will be some pain," Bell told AP's Alicia Chang.

But just how much pain remains to be seen. NASA said the extra cash will derive from the planetary science division, which funds most projects within NASA.

Jim Green, who heads the division, told AP in a statement that it is too soon to know what missions will be affected. He did note, however, that "no other projects are being cancelled or delayed to provide funding" for Curiosity.

NASA has never landed such an advanced system on the red planet before. Curiosity proved to be a major challenge from the beginning because of its size and capability. It will be able to go farther than the twin rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) that are currently on the Martian surface and will carry a highly sophisticated set of instruments which includes a rock-zapping laser. 


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