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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: © 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 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. "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.

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him @tariqjmalik. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Instagram.

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  • doug_satx
    These are more in the nature of questions regarding the impacts of the delays on the Mars mission, than they are comments. Will the delays require greater velocities of the vehicle in transit to Mars? If so, then will they require greater deceleration on approaching Mars? Will there be any consequent effect on entry velocity in the Martian atmosphere? How will these changes effect fuel consumption for the journey and is any increase well within fuel capacity?
    Reply
  • dfjchem721
    doug_satx said:
    These are more in the nature of questions regarding the impacts of the delays on the Mars mission, than they are comments. Will the delays require greater velocities of the vehicle in transit to Mars? If so, then will they require greater deceleration on approaching Mars? Will there be any consequent effect on entry velocity in the Martian atmosphere? How will these changes effect fuel consumption for the journey and is any increase well within fuel capacity?

    Your concerns about timing, fuel consumption etc. are certainly reasonable. Nobody wants to screw up a costly mission to Mars. Having grown up during the space race to the moon, most of us read all about NASA mission parameters, the amount of fuel, how much time it would take to get there and back, etc. Since others may be reading these comments, it seems reasonable to address the issues you brought up, even though you might be aware of most of them.

    As you clearly know, missions to other planets have optimal launch windows due simply to the continuously variable positions of the planets relative to earth. These windows result for some of the reasons you mention - conservation of fuel, etc. When NASA designs a spacecraft mission to Mars, they know when the best launch windows are - they have been at this for a while. But they also know that things can go slower than expected during construction and launch preparation. So in order to minimize the risk of missing a window completely, most of these spacecraft are designed and built well in advance of that window. And then they are tested extensively to be sure they are optimal for that window. So they always have some wiggle room in launch dates.

    One suspects they plan most mission launches at the earliest moment the window opens, providing extra time during preparation for launch, which must occur very close to the launch date. You don't want a rocket with payload sitting around for extended periods waiting for the window to open.

    Since NASA knows there is a fairly strict window on this launch, they certainly would not risk the mission by launching at a time when the spacecraft's fuel etc. would be an issue. Again, these aspects are planned well in advance. And the article does mention when that window closes:

    "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."

    So it would seem that launching on July 22 should not be a problem. As you are probably aware, the problems usually crop up when you get to Mars, not in getting there. We should all hope that everything plays out well for Perseverance and more useful data is obtained from the Red Planet!


    Anyone wishing to calculate launch windows to Mars can check out this student lesson from JPL:

    https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/teach/activity/lets-go-to-mars-calculating-launch-windows/
    For an excellent overview on this new rover, see :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perseverance_(rover)
    Reply
  • AirFrank
    doug_satx said:
    These are more in the nature of questions regarding the impacts of the delays on the Mars mission, than they are comments. Will the delays require greater velocities of the vehicle in transit to Mars? If so, then will they require greater deceleration on approaching Mars? Will there be any consequent effect on entry velocity in the Martian atmosphere? How will these changes effect fuel consumption for the journey and is any increase well within fuel capacity?
    Short answer is no. The rocket has the capacity to give the vehicle just enough velocity to get there based on when it launches. If the velocity requirement at launch is less they simply terminate thrusting early. If the velocity required is more then they burn longer. By design they will get there with the correct velocity.
    Reply
  • eagle6117
    We just spent the last 4 months learning how to disinfect the entire house. Just let any everyday putz in there with a bottle of water and bleach. That'll do it.
    Reply