NASA is delaying the launch of the next Mars rover named Perseverance by a week because of a problem with the missile that is supposed to send the spaceship to the Red Planet. The rover is scheduled to start in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 30 at the earliest.
The launch of Perseverance is dangerously nearing the end of its limited launch window, which originally ran from July 17th to August 11th. NASA and other space agencies only have a small window every two years to send spaceships to Mars when the Red Planet is closest to Earth’s orbit. NASA has postponed the launch several times earlier to July 20 and then July 22 because of problems with the ground equipment that supports the launch. If NASA misses the chance to launch Perseverance this summer, the agency would have to wait until 2022 to try again.
However, NASA announced today that the rover̵
NASA blames the delay for a problem that has surfaced in Perseverance’s rocket, an Atlas V rocket manufactured and operated by the United Launch Alliance. The company rehearsed the missile on June 22, filled it with propellant, and underwent all the procedures to practice the actual launch. During this test, a number of sensors that monitor the level of liquid oxygen in the vehicle returned poor data, and the ULA team needed additional time to find out what went wrong and fix the problem.
Preparing endurance for the launch this summer was already a tedious process for NASA’s mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 12, JPL specified that most of the staff in the facility would have to work from home. The team still had to work on the vehicle, practice social distancing, initiate new disinfection measures and communicate with other employees from afar. Meanwhile, the rover’s rapidly approaching launch window was above everyone this summer.
“Instead of your first priority being mission success and reaching the launch pad, your first priority is immediately being shifted, and now it’s human safety,” said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for persistence, during a video. “And it took a lot of work to put things together to keep going, to work safely, to stay healthy, and to keep the project on schedule.”
When the rover starts, Perseverance will search for signs of life on the Red Planet that may have existed billions of years ago. The rover is also equipped with tools that drill into the Martian soil and dig up samples that remain on the surface of the planet. NASA hopes to take these samples one day during a second mission in the future and then return them to Earth, where they can be examined by scientists in a laboratory. Such a project, known as the Mars Sample Return Mission, would really help scientists better characterize what Mars was like in the past and whether the Red Planet was home to life long ago.