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NASA's next Mars rover still faces huge hurdles

Image: Curiosity rover
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.NASA / JPL-Caltech
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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.

"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 You can follow senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @. Follow or .