NASA delays launch of its next Mars rover as time runs out for takeoff

NASA is pushing back the launch of it next Mars rover, called Perseverance, by a week, due to a problem with the rocket that’s supposed to send the spacecraft to the Red Planet. The rover is now slated to launch no earlier than July 30th out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

That puts the launch of Perseverance perilously close to the end of its limited launch window, which originally spanned from July 17th to August 11th. NASA and other space agencies only have a small window of time every two years to send spacecraft to Mars, when the Red Planet comes closest to Earth on its orbit around the Sun. NASA has already pushed back the launch a few times before, to July 20th and then to July 22nd, due to issues with the ground equipment that supports the launch. If NASA misses the chance to launch Perseverance this summer, the agency would have to wait until 2022 to try again.

However, NASA announced today that the rover’s launch window is being extended by a few days until August 15th, according to a blog post. And the flight teams are analyzing whether the window can be extended even further into August. Still, there isn’t a ton of time left to get this vehicle off the ground.

NASA is blaming the delay on an issue that cropped up in Perseverance’s rocket, an Atlas V rocket manufactured and operated by the United Launch Alliance. The company conducted a dress rehearsal of the rocket on June 22nd, filling it up with propellant and running through all the procedures to practice for the actual launch. During that test, a line of sensors that monitors the levels of liquid oxygen propellant in the vehicle gave back bad data, and the ULA team needs extra time to figure out what went wrong and fix the issue.

Prepping Perseverance for launch this summer has already been an arduous process for the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 12th, JPL mandated that most everyone at the facility had to work from home, and the team has had to continue working on the vehicle while practicing social distancing, instituting new disinfection measures, and communicating with other employees remotely. All the while, the rover’s rapidly approaching launch window this summer loomed over everyone.

“Rather than your first priority being mission success and on getting to the launch pad, your first priority immediately gets displaced, and it’s now the safety of the people,” Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager for Perseverance, said during a video. “And it took a lot of work to put stuff together in order to keep going, keep working safely, keep healthy, and keep the project on schedule.”

When the rover does launch, Perseverance is designed to look for signs of life on the Red Planet that may have existed billions of years ago. The rover is also equipped with tools that will drill into the Martian soil and dig up samples that will be left on the planet’s surface. NASA hopes to pick up those samples one day during a second mission in the future and then bring them home to Earth, where they can be studied in a laboratory setting by scientists. Known as a Mars sample return mission, such a project would really help scientists better characterize what Mars was like in its past and if the Red Planet did host life long ago.

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