NASA is delaying the selection of the

next of its Mars Scout series of missions

by a few months to address conflict of interest

concerns that arose just before the final evaluation of the proposals was to begin.

“In preparing for the evaluation of Mars Scout Concept Study Reports for the final selection, NASA identified an organizational conflict of interest. NASA determined action had to be taken to resolve the conflict in order to maintain a fair competition,” NASA’s Mars Exploration Program announced Nov. 28. “Among several actions deemed necessary to address the conflict, the most significant is that NASA will reconstitute the evaluation team with new members, thereby eliminating the organizational conflict of interest. In order to minimize the impact to the teams’ proposed mission schedules, NASA will expedite the reconstitution and evaluation processes. However, this action will delay the evaluation and announcement of the selection of the next Mars Scout mission by a few months. The teams will be notified when the new schedule is final.”

NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown declined to say what conflict of interest had been discovered. “It would be inappropriate to discuss further details due to the ongoing competition,” he said.

NASA picked two finalists for the 2011 Mars Scout mission opportunity in January, with plans to make a final selection by early next year. Both finalists were Boulder, Colo.-based institutions proposing to send

an orbiter to the red planet to study how its atmosphere has evolved over time.

One of the missions, dubbed the Great Escape, was proposed by Alan Stern before NASA Administrator Mike Griffin lured him away from the Southwest Research Institute in April to run the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, which oversees a $5 billion portfolio that includes robotic Mars missions. Upon taking the NASA job, Stern stepped down as principal investigator for the Great Escape and recused himself from the Mars Scout selection.

Brown said Nov. 28 that the conflict of interest issue that arose was not about Stern’s association with the Great Escape proposal. “Alan Stern was not involved and has not been involved in any respect,” he said.

The other mission, the Mars Atmosphere and Evolution Mission, or Maven, was proposed by Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado. Jakosky said at the time of Maven’s selection that NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., would manage the project, with Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems

to build the orbiter. Maven’s science partners included Goddard, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.

In January, Stern told Space News that the

Great Escape team included the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory of Laurel, Md., Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., the University of Michigan and “a host of other players.”