June 9, 2011

Many Hurdles To Face Before Curiosity’s November Launch

According to an internal audit, NASA's next-generation rover to the surface of Mars faces significant hurdles as it races to the launch pad for a November liftoff.

NASA insisted the remaining work to be done will not result in a launch delay.

"At this point in time, we are fully on schedule," said Dave Lavery, the project's program executive at NASA headquarters.

The mobile Mars Science Laboratory is intended to be the most sophisticated rover ever sent to the red planet.  The total cost of the mission has jumped up to $2.5 billion from $1.6 billion.

NASA's inspector general blamed project managers for routinely underestimating costs and calculated that an extra $44 million to the development budget may be needed to avoid another delay.

The report said the latest price tag "may be insufficient to ensure timely completion of the project in light of the historical pattern of cost increases and the amount of work that remains to be completed."

The Curiosity rover is essentially a science laboratory on wheels.  It carries a suite of tools to analyze Martian rocks and soil to determine whether environmental conditions were ever favorable to support primitive life.

The rover was supposed to launch in 2009, but problems during construction forced NASA to push back launch by two years to 2011.

Engineers had to redesign the heat shield after it failed safety tests.  There were also delays in shipping instruments to NASA.

Auditors found 1,200 reports of problems and failures that have not been resolved as of February.  Lavery said the number was a bit on the high side, but it was not out of the character for such a complicated mission.

While engineers have fixed most of the problems that delayed the launch, some key issues still remained, such as potential contamination of rock and soil samples by the spacecraft's robotic arm. 

The report said another delay would increase costs by at least another $570 million.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity will use a precision landing system to lower itself to the surface of Mars.

NASA nixed the previously planned 3D cameras due to the time frame it would've taken to test them.  Curiosity will now carry digital color cameras that are three times more powerful than those aboard previous Mars rovers.


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