Launch of NASA's next Mars rover delayed again by 'contamination concern' on the ground

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is prepared to be encapsulated in its Atlas V rocket payload fairing at NASA's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 2020.
NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is prepared to be encapsulated in its Atlas V rocket payload fairing at NASA's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/Christian Mangano)

The launch of NASA's next Mars rover has been delayed to no earlier than July 22 due to a contamination issue with ground support equipment, the space agency said today (June 24).

NASA's Mars rover Perseverance (opens in new tab) was scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet on July 20 from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But a problem cropped up as engineers worked to encapsulate the rover in the nosecone of its Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance. 

"NASA and United Launch Alliance are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft," NASA officials said in an update (opens in new tab). "Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF)."

Related: NASA's Mars 2020 rover Perseverance in pictures

The contamination issue marks the second delay in as many weeks for the Mars rover Perseverance. The mission was originally scheduled to launch July 17, but slipped three days to July 20 due to a ground system equipment issue that involved a faulty crane. 

The Perseverance rover and its Atlas V rocket are in good health, according to NASA, and ULA successfully performed a "wet-dress rehearsal" (a test that included fueling the Atlas V rocket) on Monday (June 22). But the new delay cuts deeper into a limited window in which to launch the mission.

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover packed up inside its Atlas V rocket payload fairing at NASA's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/Christian Mangano)

NASA has until Aug. 11 to launch the Perseverance rover to Mars and still reach the Red Planet in February 2021. If NASA doesn't make that launch window, the agency will have to wait another 26 months (until 2022), when the orbits of Mars and Earth will once again be aligned for such a mission. 

On June 17, after the initial delay, NASA officials said Perseverance has plenty of time in its current launch window.

"We've got plenty of window or runway ahead of us and we're not worried about it," NASA launch director Omar Baez said in a news conference. "We'll probably run into some not-so-perfect days that could set us back and the team is flexible enough to be able to handle a three-week window."

It may even be possible to extend Perseverance's launch window to Aug. 15, Baez added. 

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for NASA's Mars rover Perseverance undergoes a wet-dress rehearsal at Space Launch Complex 41 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 22, 2020. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

The Mars rover Perseverance is expected to land inside Mars' 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. It is designed to search for evidence of ancient life, collect samples of Mars that will be returned to Earth on a later mission, and test technology to make oxygen from the carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere.

The nuclear-powered robot is a successor to the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the Gale Crater on Mars since August 2012. But unlike Curiosity, Perseverance will not be alone when it lands on Mars. It is carrying Ingenuity, the first helicopter built to fly on another planet. 

The small drone is aiming to make three test flights in the Martian atmosphere during Perseverance's mission.

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Tariq Malik
Editor-in-Chief

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award (opens in new tab) for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast (opens in new tab) with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network (opens in new tab). To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik (opens in new tab).