MER Launch Reset For Fifth Time: Blame Booster
There's something wrong with the
Boeing-made Delta II heavy launch vehicle that will lift America's
second Mars rover mission toward the red planet. NASA is five for
five in attempts to launch the MER package from the Kennedy Space
Center. Every single attempt has been postponed for one reason or
another. NASA next hopes to launch the rover "Opportunity"
Monday night. In setting its sights on that launch window, the
space agency passed up two chances to lift-off on Sunday. Officials
say they want to get it right and the extra time couldn't hurt.
First, it was weather. Most recently, however, the cork that
insulates the rocket's first stage has shown disturbing signs that
it just doesn't want to stick to the rocket's skin. One of the
delays last week occurred when engineers had to replace the cork in
its entirety. Saturday night's launch was delayed for much the same
reason. The cork is once again "debonding" in what NASA says are
"limited areas." Scrubbing the Saturday night launch allows the
flight team to pressurize the Delta's liquid oxygen tank in a sort
of final test of the cork insulation.
It's Not Easier The Second Time Around
Compared to the relatively problem-free launch of its twin
rover, "Spirit," Opportunity has been a technical
headache for both NASA and Boeing. The band of cork around the
launch vehicle is about two feet wide and a quarter-inch thick.
Since Opportunity's is the first launch for this version
of Delta II, engineers are taking extra time to check and re-check
"[Even] though the first vehicle is behaving as well as it has,
[Spirit and Opportunity] are in fact different
vehicles and this a different launch opportunity and we should
expect the unexpected and be prepared for it," said Peter
Theisinger, head of the MER program.
Once it's off the ground, Opportunity will join the
largest fleet of space vehicles ever to orbit Mars at one time. If
all goes according to schedule, the Opportunity rover will
join Spirit on the surface of Mars in January. Also
orbiting the red planet are the EU's Mars Express vehicle
with its Beagle II rover on board, Japan's Nozumi
orbiter, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars
Opportunity and Spirit will search for ancient
signs that water was once in abundance on Mars. Each will cover
ground in a different Martian hemisphere, as scientists hope to
maximize their chances of finding something that proves life might
have once existed there. Britain's Beagle II rover will
search specifically for tiny signs of life.
While the skies over Mars will be relatively crowded in about
six months, there's no guarantee of safety in numbers. Of the past
nine attempts to put landers on the Martian surface, only three
have been functional. The rest gave up, burned out or augured