Image: Curiosity rover
NASA / JPL-Caltech
An artist's conception shows NASA's Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, which is about the size of a Mini Cooper automobile. A newly released audit suggests that the $2.5 billion mission still faces significant budgetary and logistical challenges, with only six months to go before its scheduled launch.
By
updated 6/8/2011 12:44:46 PM ET 2011-06-08T16:44:46

NASA's repeatedly delayed and over-budget mission to send a huge rover to Mars still faces significant budget, timing and technology challenges before it can launch to the Red Planet in November, a project audit reveals.

A new report, released Wednesday by NASA's independent Office of the Inspector General, found that even more money may be needed to launch the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission to Mars this year. The mission is currently slated for launch in late November or December, NASA officials say.

The Mars Science Laboratory, which NASA calls the Curiosity rover, is designed to look for signs that Mars is, or once was, habitable to life. It "is the most technologically challenging interplanetary rover ever designed," according to the report by Inspector General Paul Martin.

Curiosity's launch was already delayed two years in February 2009 because several critical components and instruments for the rover were delivered late by contractors. The snag boosted the project's development costs by 86 percent, from $969 million to the current $1.8 billion. Total life-cycle costs rose by 56 percent, from $1.6 billion to the current $2.5 billion. [Vote: Where Should NASA New Mars Rover Land?]

Because the orbits of Earth and Mars don't align that often, NASA is trying furiously to meet the November 2011 launch window. If Curiosity can't launch then, the agency will have to wait 26 months — more than two years — for another launch window.

Such a delay would require a redesign costing an additional $570 million, the inspector general's report found.

So far, the Mars Science Laboratory team has made good progress overcoming most of the technical issues that caused the launch delay in 2009. 

"As of March 2011, all critical components and instruments have been installed on the rover and final preparation for shipment later this month to the Kennedy Space Center is proceeding," according to the NASA report.

However, there are still hurdles looming.

The audit team found that the MSL scientists still need to resolve technical issues involving potential contamination of rock and soil samples, development of flight software, and fault protection.

Because of the delays to the project, more than three times the number of critical tasks than originally planned remain to be completed in the few months remaining until launch. There are still about 1,200 reports of problems and failures that have not been resolved, the audit reported.

"If these reports are not resolved prior to launch, there is a possibility that an unknown risk could materialize and negatively affect mission success," according to the report.

Ultimately, more money may be needed.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

"Although the MSL Project has received three budget increases since the 2009 launch delay, including an infusion of $71 million in December 2010, in our judgment the project may require additional funds to meet its November 2011 scheduled launch date," the report stated.

The inspection team recommended that more funds be funneled to the MSL project to make sure that outstanding issues are resolved and the rover meets its launch date, to prevent another even more costly delay.

"NASA agreed with our findings, concurred with our recommendations, and in its response described a series of planned actions," the inspector general's team wrote.

Among the planned actions were these:

  • Senior mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have drawn up a plan to take care of all the open problem/failure reports before launch.
  • The associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, Ed Weiler, told auditors that "the project's budget, combined with $22 million in directorate-held reserves, would be sufficient" to ensure a timely and safe launch.
  • The mission's financial status is being monitored on a weekly basis, auditors were told.

The audit report said that the proposed actions were "responsive," and that the inspector general's office would make sure that they were carried out.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com. You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ ClaraMoskowitz. Follow Space.com @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Mars Curiosity rover

loading photos...
  1. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. (Terry Renna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Mars Science Laboratory, and accompanying Atlas V rocket, is hoisted into place at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Kim Shiflett / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. NASA technicians look over the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover during inspections at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. NASA technicians examine the wheels of the Mars Science Laboratory rover. (Dutch Slager / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Technicians examine the turret at the end of the Mars Science Laboratory's arm. The turret weighs 73 pounds and holds the machines that will touch the rocks and soil on Mars. (Frankie Martin / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Mars Science Laboratory's Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument will measure heat shield temperatures and atmospheric pressures during the spacecraft's high-speed, extremely hot entry into the Martian atmosphere. (Lockheed Martin) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. NASA engineers stand by Mars Science Laboratory's aeroshell, a conical shell that will help protect the rover Curiosity, a robot the size of a car, from the searing temperatures of atmospheric entry when it lands on Mars, shown at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, April 4. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA mega-rover, Curiosity's wheels and suspension are shown at the Mars Science Laboratory. Technicians, dressed in protective suits, has been working around the clock inside a clean room at the JPL assembling the craft, testing its science instruments, before shipping it off to Florida for launch later this year. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. There are 10 instruments on board Curiosity that can analyze samples to help determine if the Red Planet is or has ever been "favorable" to microbial life, according to NASA.

    See more close-up Curiosity pics by Joseph Linaschke at Boing Boing (Joseph Linaschke / photojoseph.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA engineers work on Curiosity, a mega-rover at the Mars Science Laboratory. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. NASA Mars Curiosity's mega-rover's Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera is seen at the Mars Science Laboratory, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Curiosity's wheels are individually powered, and enable the mega-rover to turn 360 degrees while staying in place.

    See more close-up Curiosity pics by Joseph Linaschke at Boing Boing (Joseph Linaschke / photojoseph.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. NASA engineers work on Curiosity. Last month, the mega-rover was subjected to "near-vacuum pressure," according to NASA, with temperatures colder than minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to simulate the environmental stresses of the Martian surface. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Image:
    Terry Renna / AP
    Above: Slideshow (13) Mars Curiosity rover
  2. AURA / STSCI / NASA
    Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
  3. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments