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MSL launch delayed two years – will now reach Mars in 2012

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog – or a space exploration enthusiast of any kind – you’ll know all about the Mars Science Laboratory. It’s NASA’s next mission to Mars – a great big beast of a rover, much bigger than the MERs, that is going to Mars to basically see if it is, or was, habitable for primitive life (among other things, obviously, I’m cutting a long story short here). It’s a massive undertaking, a “Flagship” mission for NASA, with a cost of almost $2bn. In many ways it’s the biggest mission there’ll be to Mars until the much anticipated Sample Return mission or even the first manned expedition to the Red Planet.

The plan was to launch MSL to Mars late next year, to arrive in mid to late 2010, and the space enthusiast community and scientific community alike have been slathering at the mouth in anticipation of the fantastic images the rover will take and the valuable – possibly history-making – science it will do there. But MSL has been in difficulty recently. It is way over budget, and problems with the supply and testing and integration of key components have had engineers and officials tearing their hair out in frustration. Recently the fate of MSL has become something of a battlefield in cyberspace too, as people for and against the mission have traded arguments and claims, often angrily. At one point it looked as if the mission might even get cancelled altogether.

But with the cruise stage already built, the innovative (and downright scary!) Skycrane hardware built, and the rover itself mostly finished, cancellation was never really likely. Much more likely was a delay in sending it to Mars, and that’s what the smart money was on yesterday when it was announced by NASA that there would be a media briefing today to give an update on the status of the mission.

Today’s briefing, at NASA HQ, confirmed that MSL’s launch to Mars is indeed going to be delayed. It will now launch in 1011 instead of 2009, a delay of two years. The reason? Well, the main reason is that they simply ran out of time to get everything done that needs to be done to make sure the rover is ready to fly to, land and work on Mars. It’s not far behind schedule really, just a few months or even a few weeks, in fact, but it might as well be a few years behind schedule, because the 2009 launch window to Mars is very narrow, and its dates are set in stone, and they’re not going to make it, and there’s no way around that. Hence, a delay until the next window, which opens in late 2011.

Obviously this is very disappointing for everyone concerned. Space enthusiasts – like myself – are gutted about the delay, absolutely gutted, as you can tell from the wailing and gnashing of teeth on web forums. I saw MSL during my recent tour of JPL, and it was a real, genuine thrill to think that it would be heading to ars next year. I was looking forward to sitting here at my computer in 2010, staring at my monitor and following the rover’s exciting but terrifying entry, descent and landing live, as it happened, in the company of my fellow Mars fanatics. I was looking forward to seeing the first images of its landing site, and following the progress of the rover in the days ahead… It’s very disappointing that that won’t now happen until the summer of 2012.

But to put this into perspective, for us spaceflight enthusiasts it just means that we’ll have to wait two more years until we can look at more beautiful pictures from Mars and make our 3D images, panoramas and animations from them. It’s much more upsetting and significant for the professional scientists, engineers and techs working on the mission itself: this will affect their careers and their livelyhoods too, perhaps. It means some people won’t get to work on MSL as long as they wanted to, and some might miss the chance of working on the mission altogether. Imagine how crushed they must be feeling right now..?

No doubt some commentators will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of being able to write long “Ha! Told you so!” or “NASA can’t keep to its own timetable!” pieces, and will be more than happy to kick NASA – and the people who work for it – when they’re down. Shame on them. They should actually be acknowledging that this is the only sensible, practical thing to do. Would they rather NASA had rushed to get MSL ready for launch in 2009 and sent it to Mars without being fully tested? Would they rather NASA had risked sending MSL to Mars without being absolutely sure they were sending the best spacecraft they could? Would they rather MSL had done a Beagle 2 and been lost without even giving us a clue as to what went wrong? Give me a break.

Thisis bad news, there’s no getting around that, and yes, I could punch a wall. I wanted to see those pictures and videos! But there are still two healthy rovers on Mars right now, as you read these words, and one of them, Opportunity, is on its most daring, most epic trek yet, a real adventure. We have, in Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, a spy satellite in orbit around Mars that is sending back breathtakingly detailed images. And we have a team of people at NASA now more dedicated than ever to getting MSL right, and making it a magnificent mission once it gets to Mars.

This is the mission that many believe will answer, finally, the question of if there’s life on Mars. There’s no more important question in science, and no more important mission for NASA. This isn’t the mission to take chances or risks with. If the people in charge – whomust be the most desperate of all to see MSL fly! – think that the safest and best thing to do is wait, then hell yes, let’s wait. As long as we need to.

We’re still going back to Mars. Not as soon as we wanted, or hoped to, but we are going back.

You’ll see.

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