— NASA is attempting to resolve a launch conflict between the $1.9 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and the Jupiter-bound Juno mission by considering moving up Juno’s launch and paying United Launch Alliance $20 million to pick up the pace of Atlas 5 launches in 2011.

space agency has struggled to fit MSL onto the Atlas 5 manifest since announcing in December that the rover would not be ready for its long-planned October 2009 launch. Because Earth and Mars are favorably aligned for launch every two years, forfeiting this year’s launch window meant postponing liftoff until October 2011.

Complicating matters is the scheduled launch of NASA’s Juno two months earlier atop an Atlas 5 from the same launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in

Because MSL has a nuclear battery on board, United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver, which builds and operates the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, typically would need three months from the time Juno lifts off to get MSL ready to launch.

While NASA officials have said they would not want to delay the launch of the roughly $1 billion Juno mission in order to make life easier for MSL, Juno officials are now looking at the feasibility of launching their spacecraft a few weeks earlier. The best launch windows for Jupiter-bound spacecraft come every 13 months.

Scott Bolton, Juno principle investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in
San Antonio
said the team has just begun its review and will have the results in a couple weeks.

“At first glance, we can probably tweak things to go a few days earlier without impacting much. More than a few days might require trajectory changes and so a more detailed analysis is needed to assess the options,”
said. “I’m hopeful we can help.”

Even if NASA cannot launch Juno earlier than its current Aug. 7 to Aug. 27 window, an accelerated ground processing pace would allow both spacecraft to remain on schedule assuming Juno lifts off near the beginning of its 20-day window, and MSL targets the end of its monthlong window.

ULA will test the compressed launch preparation schedule this year at the request of the U.S. Air Force and NASA. The Air Force will pay $15 million in 2009 for the additional staff time ULA says it needs to shorten ground processing from 90 days to 75 days for nuclear-powered spacecraft and from 60 days to 45 days for non-nuclear spacecraft. The Air Force has not decided whether to continue paying for accelerated launch preparations beyond 2009, Air Force officials said in a written response to questions.

ULA will add just one launch to its 2009 manifest as a result of the compressed ground processing, but could eventually schedule eight Atlas 5 missions per year instead of six, ULA spokeswoman Julie Andrews said.

NASA officials have said their primary concern is avoiding a launch bottleneck in late 2011, when MSL, Juno and three non-NASA missions are all scheduled for Atlas 5 liftoffs. NASA does not have any Atlas 5 launches scheduled in 2010, but maintaining an accelerated ground-processing schedule next year could help some of the launches now planned for late 2011 move forward in the manifest.

“We don’t know who is paying for 2010 yet,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration program. “I’ve been told we’re paying for it in 2011.”

NASA’s $20 million payment to ULA is part of the estimated $400 million in additional money MSL needs as a result of its two-year delay. NASA is in the process of revising technical, schedule and budget requirements and officials expect to have a plan and firm numbers in April, McCuistion said.

Among the options being considered for MSL is falling back to a December 2011 launch window, a change that would require planning a new, more demanding launch trajectory. McCuistion said in January that launching MSL in December 2011 would also require ULA to add a fifth strap-on solid-rocket booster to MSL’s Atlas 5. As an added bonus, the roughly $20 million performance upgrade could also add about two weeks to MSL’s October window. However, NASA has since determined the upgrade is not necessary.

“We think the [current Atlas 5 version] will perform in those requirements and on those additional days as well,” McCuistion said. “We did a better analysis of what the [rocket] will do.”