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NASA forced to delay Mars probe

December 22, 2007|From Reuters

NASA will miss a precious opportunity to fly a probe to Mars because of a conflict of interest in picking a contractor, delaying the mission by more than two years, officials said Friday.

The unspecified conflict has forced the space agency to disband the panel convened to select a contractor for the $475- million, five-year mission and assemble a new one.

The launch will be delayed to 2013 because the most efficient path to Mars is present only once every 26 months, when the planets' orbits bring them into close alignment.

The probe is intended to measure how quickly Mars is losing its atmosphere.

Details of the conflict, which involved Texas-based Southwest Research Institute or the University of Colorado, were not released to protect proprietary information, Lisa May, the program executive at NASA headquarters, wrote in an e-mail to Reuters.

Said Doug McCuistion, Mars exploration program director in a conference call with reporters: "The government has done nothing incorrect or questionable." He declined to say which proposal generated the conflict.

Resolving the conflict, McCuistion said, "required disbanding the review panel and reforming a new review panel, all new members under a new contractor."

Allowing enough time for a full review would have left the winning team squeezed to get its spacecraft ready in time for launch.

"We didn't want to start one of these missions and select them and have them in a less-than-favorable circumstance going into the mission development, so we moved the launch to 2013," McCuistion said.

NASA has been hotly pursuing information about the red planet since the 1990s, when it renewed robotic exploration after a 20-year hiatus. Since then, it has dispatched one or more spacecraft to Mars at every launch opportunity.

The atmospheric monitoring probe is intended to provide information about what the planet's atmosphere was like long ago. The planet currently has no magnetic field to protect its thin atmosphere from being blasted away by solar winds. By measuring the escape rates of various gases, scientists can backtrack to determine whether and when the planet's protective blanket was suitable to sustain life.

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