Red Planet Return Rescheduled

NASA announced yesterday its upcoming mission to look for life on the Red Planet won’t take off for another two years. Because of “testing and hardware challenges” the Mars Scientific Laboratory fell behind schedule and will miss its October 2009 launch date. The next time Mars will be close enough for launch won’t be until the fall of 2011.

The car-sized rover is NASA’s best chance yet to find evidence of Martian life, so I can’t blame them for wanting to make sure everything works. They’ve invested $2 billion on the rover, an awful lot to gamble on any untested hardware. Especially considering how Mars missions have a terrible habit of going very wrong.

It’s spooky, over half of all missions to the Red Planet have ended in failure. Some call it the “Mars Curse.” In 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter accidentally crashed when mission control sent it orbital measurements using feet instead of meters. Oops! Four years later, the European Space Agency’s lander, Beagle 2, disappeared behind the far side of the planet, never to be heard from again.

Even so, the successes outshine even the most troublesome failures. The twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been trucking around the planet’s surface for nearly four years and are still going strong. Not bad for a pair of robots whose designers only expected to last three months.

To help prevent future delays, NASA announced it will team up with the Europeans and pool their resources for any upcoming Mars landings. One of the major goals now is to design a landing craft that can actually return a sample of Martian soil to Earth. Manned landings are still decades away, but each new mission brings us tantalizingly closer to people actually walking on Mars.

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