NASA made a decision this week to delay the launch of the Mars Science Lab (MSL – wikipedia; MSL – mission page) until 2011, instead of next year (2009). Problems with the rover’s actuators, which will control every moving piece on the rover, were cited as the cause for delay.
The two year delay comes about as a result of the desire to launch when Mars and Earth are in the best position with respect to one another. Flights can technically be launched at any time, but additional fuel and time are needed outside of the prime windows. The delay is expected to add $400 million to the cost of the mission, which unfortunately is likely to mean other probe’s and rovers’ work and launches will be similarly delayed.
It’s for this reason that I wish science was a higher priority for the U.S. I think there should be secondary missions that can be worked on and launched if primary missions aren’t ready. Their schedules could be offset from the primary missions’ by approximately one year. If a primary and secondary missions are both ready, launch them both. But if one or the other isn’t ready, something should be prepared to take their place.
Longer term, it means human exploration and settlement of Mars could also be delayed. I want to see humans explore and settle Mars in my lifetime. ‘This delay frustrates that desire.
A date has been selected for the next Hubble repair mission, which was supposed to take place back in October. STS-125 is now scheduled for May 12, 2009. The mission was delayed due to the failure of a data handling unit days before its original scheduled lift-off. Missions planners have scheduled 5 spacewalks over 11 days to upgrade the Hubble.
The James Webb Telescope, scheduled for a 2013 launch, will have a revolutionary sun shield. It will be the size of a tennis court once it is unfolded in space and be membrane-based. The 21.3 foot diameter shield will have 5 layers of a material called Kapton, which is mylar-like, and aluminum and silicon coatings to reflect heat back into space. Engineers had to figure out how to fold the coated membranes, which make up the layers of the sun shield, to make sure they didn’t get tangled upon opening and so that the unfolding didn’t rub off any of the coatings.