NASA says it will be forced to delay the launch of its multi-billion dollar perseverance mission until July 30. The large Mars-bound rover must launch an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida before mid-August, or Earth’s conjunction with the red planet will be missing.
This is the third delay in the Perseverance launch campaign, formerly known as Mars 2020, and the most worrying because a new formal launch date has not been set.
Earlier this month a problem occurred during a wet clothes test. During this standard pre-launch test, an Atlas V rocket is powered with propellant and is counted down to the last moments before being fired. So what happened? “A line of liquid oxygen sensors presented non-nominal data during the Wet Dress test and extra time is needed to allow the team to inspect and evaluate,”
A source in Florida indicated that the problem was related to the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas V rocket, which is powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
Expandable startup window
The $ 2.1 billion rover is similar to NASA’s Curiosity rover but contains numerous updates, including the addition of a small helicopter, and will launch on the 541 configuration of the Atlas V rocket. NASA originally set up a launch window from 17 July to 11 August, the optimal period for the launch of the rocket and for the perseverance to reach Mars within about six months.
Since then the launch has been delayed from 17 July to 20 July due to a crane problem during the stacking process; he was delayed again from 20 July to 22 July. NASA attributed this latest setback to “a delay in processing encountered during spacecraft encapsulation activities.”
The spacecraft has yet to be stacked on top of the first and second stages of the Atlas V rocket. It now appears likely that the rocket maker, United Launch Alliance, will have to understand and address the problem with the liquid oxygen sensor line before it business can proceed. Once the rocket and its payload have reached the launch pad, the mission will also face summer weather in Florida, where storms along the coast are common.
On Tuesday, the space agency said it had extended the launch window to August 15 and will examine whether the launch window can be extended a few more days in August. If the Perseverance mission fails this launch window, it will be delayed for 26 months, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, until the next Earth-Mars conjunction in 2022.
Image of the United Launch Alliance announcement