Curiosity has been exploring Mars for years, and NASA has been planning its successor for almost as long. The Perseverance rover is nearly complete, but NASA has been forced to delay the launch yet again. The rover will now launch no earlier than July 30th, putting it perilously close to the end of the launch window. Missing the window would be a major setback for the agency’s Mars exploration plans.
Perseverance, previously known only as Mars 2020, borrows most of its design features from the wildly successful Curiosity rover, but NASA has also made some notable improvements. For example, Perseverance has more durable wheels, which should prevent the punctures and warping seen on Curiosity’s wheels. There’s also a small helicopter on the underside of Perseverance that will help scout the Martian terrain. Naturally, the rover has a new generation of cameras and scientific instruments aimed at searching for signs of ancient life on Mars.
Before Perseverance can search for anything, it has to reach the red planet. The latest delay is the third for the mission. NASA says it encountered an issue with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket during a dress rehearsal test. A liquid-oxygen sensor reported anomalous data, which the team will need to analyze and repair. NASA initially wanted to get the rover packed inside the Atlas V rocket and launch on July 17th. Logistical issues have pushed the launch to July 20th and then to the 22nd. NASA is almost out of time with the big day currently set for July 30th.
Due to processing delays in preparations to unite me with the rocket, my first launch attempt will be no earlier than July 30. @NASA and @ulalaunch are working to update the target launch date and have been able to expand the launch period until Aug. 15. https://t.co/cwfwy5cTY0 pic.twitter.com/XICMjwtx7h
— NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) June 30, 2020
While Earth and Mars are the third and fourth planets in the solar system, they’re not always near each other. Since they orbit the sun at different speeds, they are often on opposite sides of the inner solar system. That’s also why Mercury is technically the closest planet to all the other planets when you average it all out. The most efficient way to reach Mars is to wait for its orbit to bring it close to Earth, which it will this month. NASA’s original launch window ran from July 17th to August 11th. When NASA delayed the launch this week, it also extended the launch window to August 15th. The agency might even be able to push out several more days, but any more than that and Perseverance would be unable to reach Mars before it moves out of range.
ULA will need to address the oxygen sensor issue before it can mount the rover payload on the rocket. Once the rocket is prepped and at the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, NASA will have to contend with Florida’s famously unpredictable summer weather. If the timeline drags out past the launch window, NASA will have to mothball Perseverance and wait for the next Earth-Mars convergence in 2022. That would add hundreds of millions to the already high cost of the mission.