NASA says its next mission to check for life on Mars will have to wait two more years. In the meantime, NASA plans to continue testing its next-generation Mars rover, and it hopes to continue exploring the red planet with the help of the European Space Agency.
NASA administrators say they will launch the Mars Science Laboratory two years later than previously planned. The mission was supposed to send a new rover to Mars in October 2009 to study the planet's environmental history and determine if conditions are, or ever were, able to support life.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin says the launch date is no longer feasible because of testing and hardware problems.
"We have determined that trying for '09 would require us to assume too much risk, more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission like the Mars Science Laboratory," he said.
Griffin says NASA would delay the launch for just a few months if possible, but the positioning of Earth and Mars only allows for a launch every two years.
NASA Associate administrator Ed Weiler says the extra time will allow for more thorough testing and the resolution of all technical problems. Weiler says avoiding a mad-dash to launch is the best solution.
"Failure is not an option on this mission," he said. "The science is too important and the investment of American taxpayer dollars compels us to be absolutely certain that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission."
NASA says the rover is one of the most technologically challenging missions ever. Officials say delaying the mission will cost about $400 million more, but NASA director Charles Elachi says it is necessary.
"This is a very complicated mission and Mars is a very unforgiving planet," he said. "The best thing is to focus the next two years on really understanding the present system, testing and testing it so we are successful."
In addition to the launch in 2011, NASA officials also say they have just agreed to join the European Space Agency in planning joint Mars missions in the future. Associate Administrator Ed Weiler says working with the European Space Agency will decrease costs and help both groups advance their studies of Mars.
"We both have the same goals scientifically," he said. "We want to get our science communities together and start laying out an architecture. They have some ideas and we have some ideas. Let's work together."
Weiler says if the two agencies stop competing with each other and work together, they can both complete more advanced missions to the planet.