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NASA Mars Scout Mission Delayed Two Years

Cites "Serious" Conflict Of Interest In RFP

A much-anticipated mission to Mars has been delayed as long as two years, as officials at NASA look into reports of a conflict of interest during the purchasing process.

The Associates Press reports the atmospheric probe -- part of the Mars Scout program, which also includes the Mars Phoenix lander launched in August -- was originally scheduled to lift off in 2011. NASA formed a board to chose from proposals submitted by two Boulder, CO-based research institutions.

However, the agency then discovered a "serious" conflict of interest in one of the proposals -- prompting the board to be disbanded, officials said. No further details were given; Mars Exploration Program Director Doug McCuistion told the AP the agency has since formed an entirely new panel to determine which site gets the contract, but that decision won't come in time to launch the $475 million mission in 2011.

As the launch window to Mars opens every 26 months, the next earliest launch date won't come until 2013... leaving NASA without a mission to launch in 2011, a glaring error as the agency tries to learn as much as it can about the red planet ahead of future manned excursions.

For the moment, only Russia has a plan in the works to launch a Mars mission in 2011 -- though that's just talk at this time. A European mission originally scheduled for 2011 was postponed earlier this year.

McCuistion admitted the delay would increase the mission cost "slightly," to about $40 million. "This was not a conflict of interest that could be avoided," McCuistion said.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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