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Here’s how late NASA could launch its Mars rover

Published Jun 18th, 2020 4:44PM EDT
mars 2020 delay
Image: Thomas Lammeyer/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

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  • NASA says it can push back the Mars 2020 mission launch date significantly without having to fully delay it to 2022.
  • The mission is slated for a July 20th launch, but officials suggest it could launch as late as August 15th and still be fine.
  • The expected closure of the launch window was previously August 11th.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was shaping up nicely until the novel coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the globe. NASA initiated work-from-home orders to the majority of its staff, with only mission-critical employees allowed to report to NASA facilities.

Thus far, the Perseverance rover and the mission itself are still on track for a launch in July. The launch date was pushed back a couple of days from its original July 17th date but now sits comfortably on July 20th. However, as SpaceNews reports, the space agency could conceivably push the mission back even further — even stretching the launch window beyond its closing date of August 11th.

The mission’s only recent hiccup was the three-day delay that was related to issues with equipment not associated with the rover itself. Aside from that, everything has lined up nicely, and the July 20th launch date looks totally possible.

However, as with any rocket launch, things often pop up out of seemingly nowhere, and it’s important to understand how flexible the launch window actually is. In a press briefing that was streamed online, NASA officials mentioned that the date when the launch window actually closes could be pushed back a little bit to accommodate unexpected issues.

“We think we have some robustness there, some good robustness there, in the launch window,” Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager of the Mars 2020 mission, explained. What that means in normal, non-NASA language is that the space agency is willing to launch the mission a few days after the launch window “closes.”

If it was absolutely necessary, NASA says it would still be possible to launch the mission on August 15th at the absolute latest, a four-day extension from the August 11th launch window closure. That’s reassuring, and it gives NASA nearly an entire month of leeway from its current planned launch date if something were to pop up that needed to be fixed or corrected.

The European Space Agency was forced to delay its own Mars mission earlier this year, pushing it back from its summer launch window all the way to 2022. These launch windows are a byproduct of the orbits of Earth and Mars, which only line up nicely for a mission every couple of years or so.

For now, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that no additional issues rear their ugly heads between now and July 20th. The Mars Perseverance rover will be capable of making some big discoveries and even preparing samples of the planet’s soil for future examination back on Earth. It’s a big deal, and we could all use something to be excited about this year.

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