NASA has again been forced to delay the launch of its Discovery programme's Lunar Prospector, because of the need for additional checks to the Lockheed Martin Athena 2 booster.

The flight, now to take place on 5 January, 1998, had already been rescheduled from September and was due to take place in October before the latest delay.

The launch will be the maiden flight for the Athena 2, formerly known as the Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle 2, and NASA appears keen to avoid any potential problems. The launcher's predecessor, the Athena 1 series, got off to an inauspicious start in August 1995, when its maiden launch was aborted. A successful launch followed in August this year, when the Athena 1 lofted the NASA Lewis spacecraft, but even that was later tarnished when the satellite itself failed, re-entering the atmosphere in September (Flight International, 15-21 October).

The $62 million Lunar Prospector mission, the first to be launched from the new Spaceport Florida commercial Pad 46 at Cape Canaveral, aims to provide detailed data on the composition and structure of the entire Moon's landscape, of which more than 75% remains unexplored, from a 100km orbit.

The lunar mission is the third in NASA's programme of "faster, better, cheaper" spacecraft, following the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous craft (en route to Eros in February 1999) and the Mars Pathfinder which landed on the Red Planet in July. A fourth mission, the Stardust, is due to be launched in February 1999, to bring back dust from the Comet Wild-2 in 2004.

Two new missions have also been added to the Discovery series. The first, called Genesis, is designed to collect charged particles in the Solar wind and return them to Earth at a total cost of $216 million. The craft will be launched in January 2001, and will return samples which should provide data to improve theories about the origin of the Sun and planets.

The second new mission, the Contour, will return images and comparative spectral maps of at least three comet nuclei, and analyse dust flowing from them, at a cost of $154 million. The craft will be launched in July 2002 and will fly-by Comet Encke in November 2003, the Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 in June 2006, and the Comet d'Arrest in August 2008.o

Source: Flight International