NASA’s newest Mars rover faces further hurdles and could require another $44 million in funds before it is ready for launch this fall, according to an agency audit announced today.
The Mars Science Laboratory is supposed to launch in a window between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the alignment between Earth and Mars is the most favorable for an interplanetary trip. But as it stands now, the MSL team won’t finish all their work before launch unless they get more money, according to an internal audit prepared by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.“The project may have insufficient funds to complete all currently identified tasks prior to launch and may therefore be forced to reduce capabilities, delay the launch for 2 years, or cancel the mission,” he wrote.
If the mission is delayed, NASA will have to spend at least $570 million to adjust mission plans to account for a new planetary alignment, not to mention the advent of the Martian summer. A Martian year is almost double the length of an Earth year, so if MSL lands in late 2013 instead of this fall, it will be just in time for a warming Martian atmosphere to stir up dust storms.
This won’t be as problematic for Curiosity as it was for Spirit and Opportunity, because the new rover is nuclear-powered rather than solar-powered. But still, dust storms could interrupt its sensitive instruments, as well as its ability to communicate with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Deep Space Network on Earth.