The launch of the Mars Science Lab has been delayed by two years

Washington (CNN) – NASA’s launch of the Mars Science Laboratory – hampered by technical difficulties and cost overruns – has been delayed until the fall of 2011, NASA officials said at a news conference Thursday in Washington.

A photo illustration of a laser-equipped vehicle said to be part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

The mission should start in autumn 2009.

The Mars Science Lab is a large, nuclear-powered rover capable of traveling great distances with an array of scientific instruments on board.

According to NASA’s website, it’s part of a “long-term robotic exploration effort” set up to “study Mars’ early environmental history” and assess whether Mars was ever – or still – capable of supporting life receive.

The launch delay is due to a number of “testing and hardware challenges that (still) need to be addressed to ensure mission success,” NASA said.

“Progress over the last few weeks in solving engineering challenges and bringing hardware together hasn’t been fast enough,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Moving to a 2011 launch “enables careful resolution of any remaining technical issues, proper and thorough testing, and avoids a maddened run-up to launch,” argued NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler.

The total cost of the Mars Science Lab is now estimated at about $2.1 billion, according to NASA spokesman Dwayne Browne. The project was originally priced at $1.6 billion.

According to Browne, NASA’s total budget for the current fiscal year is approximately $15 billion.

According to NASA, the Mars rover will use new technology and be designed to explore greater distances over rougher terrain than previous missions to the planet. This will be done in part through the deployment of a new surface propulsion system.

“Failure is not an option on this mission,” Weiler said. “The science is too important, and the investment by American taxpayers forces us to be absolutely certain that we have done everything we can to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission.”

Weiler claimed that based on the agency’s preliminary assessments, additional costs related to delaying the Science Lab launch would not result in the cancellation of other NASA programs over the next two years. However, he acknowledged that this would result in further unspecified program delays.

Critics have charged that the delays and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab point to an agency plagued by lack of accountability and inefficiency in managing time and taxpayer dollars.

“The Mars Science Laboratory is only the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of its spending,” wrote Alan Stern, a former deputy NASA administrator, in a Nov. 24 op-ed in the New York Times. “A cancer is overtaking our space agency: the routine admission of immense cost increases for projects.”

Stern claimed that the agency’s cost overruns are being fueled by “managers obscuring the magnitude of cost increases generated by missions” and “Congressmembers accepting steep increases to protect local jobs.”

Browne responded in a written statement that NASA administrators are “constantly working to improve[the agency’s]cost estimation capabilities.” … We continuously review our projects to understand the true risk in terms of performance, cost and schedule.”

“The fact of life at NASA, where we are tasked with creating unique missions of scientific discovery, is that estimating the cost of … science can be almost as difficult as actually doing the science,” Browne said.

NASA’s latest Mars project — the Phoenix Mars Lander mission — ended last month after the solar-powered vehicle’s batteries died as a result of a sandstorm and the onset of the Martian winter. It was operational two months into its original three-month mission.

NASA officials had landed the vehicle on an arctic plain after satellite observations indicated there was large amounts of frozen water in the area, most likely in the form of permafrost. They thought such a location would be a promising place to look for organic chemicals that would signal a habitable environment.

Scientists have been able to detect the presence of water ice in the subsurface of Mars, find small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life and observe snow descending from the clouds, NASA said Thursday.

all about Mars Exploration • NASA