"Budgetary concerns" hold up Mars project for two years and endanger future missions to red planet

NASA plans for a series of missions to Mars are being endangered by budget cuts which could result in the Smart Lander project being delayed by two years. The already delayed first sample return mission faces still further setbacks and other projects are at risk.

The 2007 launch of the Smart Lander is likely to be delayed to 2009 due to "budgetary concerns", NASA has admitted.

The Smart Lander is a prototype of the craft that will be used to make the sample return mission. It is planned to demonstrate an ability to make a pinpoint landing on a site selected by earlier reconnaissance. The mission will deploy a rover destined to spend a year exploring up to 100km (60 miles) from the landing site, equipped with 300kg (660lb) of instruments, before returning to the lander.

Original plans revealed two years ago had the first ever sample return mission scheduled for 2005 but failures by the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999 resulted in a rationalisation of Mars programmes and a sense of realism about the technological hurdles to be overcome.


The European Space Agency's Mars Express with its piggyback Beagle 2 Mars lander from the UK will be launched in 2003. A dual NASA Long Range Mars Rover science laboratory mission will be launched the same year, although this could be reduced to one rover, due to budget cuts. A NASA micro-satellite communications demonstration mission called the Mars Network is unlikely to go ahead.

The 200mm (8in) resolution Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to be launched in 2005 remains on schedule. The MRO will provide information on landing sites for follow-on missions. Several small Scout missions planned for 2007 and beyond are under threat.

France is also planning a test flight of the sample return orbiter vehicle in 2007 which would practise rendezvous and docking with a dummy sample return capsule. The mission will also deploy four Netlander craft to operate on the Martian surface.

Another potential mission to be launched in 2007 plans to put an Italian-US communications satellite in Mars orbit which will be used to relay high speed data to Earth from the Netlanders and Mars Scouts. The 2009 launch of a Mars radar mapping satellite also using Italian equipment could remain on schedule if budget conditions improve.

Meanwhile the NASA Mars Odyssey orbiter is due to arrive this month. The spacecraft is aiming to enter Martian orbit on 23 October.

Source: Flight International