Launch of NASA’s next Mars rover delayed to 30 July

The Perseverance rover, enclosed within in its cone-shaped backshell is attached to its heat shield at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA/Christian Mangano.

Trouble with ground equipment and then an issue with a sensor in an Atlas 5 rocket have delayed launch of NASA’s $2.4 billion Perseverance Mars rover from 17 July to no earlier than 30 July. The delays have used up roughly half the planetary launch window.

Based on the relative positions of Earth and Mars – and the Atlas 5’s ability to put Perseverance on the proper course toward the red planet – NASA originally said the rover had to get off the ground between July 17 and 5 August. But the window later was extended to 11 August and in the wake of the delay to NET 30 July, it has been stretched to 15 August.

The rover’s launch first slipped three days, from 17 to 20 July because of trouble with ground equipment and then another two days when engineers ran into problems encapsulating the spacecraft in its protective nose fairing.

The latest delay was blamed on “a liquid oxygen sensor line” in the rover’s Atlas 5 rocket that acted up during a dress-rehearsal countdown. As a result, NASA said, “additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate.”

Engineers remain confident they’ll get Perseverance on its way before the planetary window closes, but the stakes are high. If Perseverance misses its window, the flight will be delayed two years while Earth and Mars return to favourable positions for launch.

“When you talk about Earth and Mars being on the same side of the sun, that happens once over 26 months,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters during a 17 June briefing. “So it’s very expensive, if we have to take Perseverance and put it back into storage for a period of two years, it could cost half a billion dollars.”