It is squeaky bum time at NASA after the launch date for the agency's Perseverance Mars rover was pushed back yet again, raising the spectre of a multi-year delay.
Due to launch on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41, lift-off had been scheduled for 13:15 UTC on 20 July. It then slipped to 13:35 UTC on 22 July. Now the delay fairy has waved her wand once more and nudged things back to no earlier than 30 July.
The latest delay is attributed to "launch vehicle processing" problems; in this case a liquid oxygen sensor showing off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, requiring some extra time for inspection. The previous hold-up was caused by a worry about contamination in the ground support lines in NASA's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).
Perseverance is similar to the Curiosity trundlebot, which has been rolling around Mars since its 2012 landing. 2020's model has put on a little weight (tipping the scales at 1,025kg) and is designed to hunt for signs of ancient life. The rover will be tasked with gathering rock and soil samples to be returned to Earth by a future mission.
The two-year mission also features the crowd-pleasing technology demonstrator, Ingenuity. Ingenuity consists of a drone that will scout out interesting looking bits of Mars for Perseverance to check out.
The slip pushes the launch nearer to the end of the window during which the mission must leave Earth. The flight analysis team has managed to expand launch opportunities to 15 August (and might squeeze a few more days out of it) but a failure to get off the ground in time will result in a delay to September 2022, "seriously impacting the long-term objectives of NASA's Mars Exploration Program and increasing overall mission risk," according to the agency.
The European Space Agency (ESA) threw in the towel for its own Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover back in March as the team faced up to a range of issues, from iffy parachutes to "technical bugs" which, while solvable, would not be dealt with in time for lift-off. Rather than risk Martian borkage, ESA wisely ushered its rover into storage to await a 2022 launch.
The reuse of an existing rover design, coupled with the impressive reliability record of the Atlas V, should have given NASA a slightly easier time. Alas, the agency reckoned without the dread influence of the f*ck-up fairy. ®