A sophisticated NASA rover slated to blast off to chemically analyze Mars for life may be delayed, modified or canceled due to cost overruns triggered by technical problems.
Managers of the Mars Science Laboratory mission are meeting with top NASA officials this week in an attempt to find a solution to the quagmire.
"They're looking for a way to work this out," Guy Webster, a spokesman for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News.
Costs for the rover, originally projected at $1.2 billion, have climbed to more than $1.5 billion. Additional problems loom.
The project faces cancellation if it reaches 30 percent over budget, a scenario that seems increasingly likely, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported this week.
Mars Science Lab is scheduled for launch next year, but its assembly is behind schedule. NASA is concerned that rushing contractors to meet the launch window is an invitation to disaster. Yet delaying the launch until the next time Earth and Mars are favorably aligned would add another $300 million to $400 million to the endeavor.
NASA has been launching Mars probes every two years in an attempt to determine if the planet ever supported, or still supports, life.
Powered by pellets of decaying radioactive plutonium, Mars Science Lab is intended to collect soil and rock samples and analyze them for organics. The overall goal of the mission is to assess whether the landing area has or ever had the ingredients to host microbial life.
Mars Science Lab would have a much greater range and a far more sophisticated set of tools than the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been exploring opposite equatorial regions of Mars since 2004. The new rover is four times heavier than the current rovers. Because it is powered by pellets of decaying radioactive plutonium instead of solar-energy, it can operate in more diverse situations and for longer periods of time.
Scientists are concerned that Mars Science Lab cost overruns may force NASA to cancel or delay other Mars probes including an atmospheric sciences mission selected last month. Long-term plans to return rock and soil samples from Mars also may be affected.
NASA has scheduled a meeting for Friday to attempt to resolve the issues.