NASA’s flagship $2.4 Billion Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission – dedicated to the search for signs of life beyond Earth – has suffered another significant delay to its launch from the Florida Space Coast to the Red Planet.
The delay is a significant concern because NASA only has a narrow window until mid-August to launch Perseverance – otherwise, she will be stuck on the ground and have to wait more than two years until the orbits of Earth and Mars align properly once again.
Such a postponement would cost a significant amount of money – an estimated half-billion U.S. dollars – and negatively impact funding for follow on missions to Mars aimed at achieving the ‘holy grail’ goal of retrieving and returning Martian soil and rock samples for return to Earth and scientific analysis.
The new delay amounts to a minimum of one week, placing launch No Earlier Than (NET) July 30. It was necessary due to issues with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V carrier rocket and comes on the heels of the prior delay to July 22 due to contamination concerns as the final encapsulation process was underway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Space Coast.
“Due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations, NASA and United Launch Alliance have moved the first launch attempt of the Mars 2020 mission to no earlier than July 30,” NASA announced in a June 30 statement.
Thus Perseverance has now lost fully half of the narrow original three-week-long launch window.
Engineers working diligently to find ways to add a few more days of margin have just been able to add another 4 days to the window of opportunity and extended the window closing from the date of August 11 to August 15.
Due to processing delays in preparations to unite me with the rocket, my first launch attempt will be no earlier than July 30. @NASA and @ulalaunch are working to update the target launch date and have been able to expand the launch period until Aug. 15. https://t.co/cwfwy5cTY0 pic.twitter.com/XICMjwtx7h
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) June 30, 2020
The team has also determined that the problem with the rocket was traced to a liquid oxygen (LOX) sensor used during the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) practice countdown test on June 22 with the ULA Atlas V carrier rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“A liquid oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate. Flight analysis teams have expanded the mission launch opportunities to August 15 and are examining if the launch period may be extended further into August.
I observed vigorous venting of the second stage liquid oxygen or LOX during the fuel loading leading up to the WDR conclusion and after it was completed.
Boosters, birds and beachcombers with 2nd stage LOX venting at Playalinda Beach this afternoon as #ULA conducts Wet Dress Rehearsel #WDR on #AtlasV rocket for @NASAPersevere Mars Rover. Launch target July 20 #Pad41 pic.twitter.com/ZVDbjhaNCN
— Ken Kremer (@ken_kremer) June 22, 2020
The WDR is a practice countdown demonstration to fuel and test all systems of the ULA Atlas V rocket to ensure its readiness for launch during the upcoming window when the spacecraft can successfully send the Mars 2020 mission on its way to the distant planet.
Such opportunities are dictated purely by celestial mechanics and only occur every 26 months when the Earth and Mars are properly aligned.
Following the WDR the Atlas V was rolled back to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 for evaluation of the LOX sensor and continuing operations to ready the rocket for flight.
After a fix is identified, implemented, and verified the now encapsulated rover inside the nose cone will be hoisted and bolted on top.
The launch currently is scheduled for 7:50 a.m. EDT (1150 GMT) on July 30, with a two-hour window available. After reaching orbit, the rover will begin a seven-month-long interplanetary journey to the Red Planet where it will search for signs of life.
Inside the PHFS, the Backshell-Powered Descent Vehicle and Entry Vehicle assemblies are now attached to Perseverance, says NASA.
“The cone-shaped backshell contains the parachute, and along with the mission’s heat shield, will provide protection for the rover and descent stage during entry into the Martian atmosphere.”
Perseverance is a robotic scientist weighing about 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms). The rover is equipped with seven different scientific instruments and 25 cameras. After touchdown in an area of Mars known as Jezero Crater – home to an ancient dried-up river delta – the rover will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize Mars’ climate and geology, collect samples for a future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration.
The one-ton rover is nearly a copy of the NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Lab rover still operating on Mars – but with a completely new suite of science instruments and cameras as well as the first Mars Helicopter.