WASHINGTON — NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), bucking technical glitches, budget overruns and years of delays, launched Nov. 26 and began a nearly nine-month voyage to Mars.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying MSL lifted off at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

MSL was to have launched in late 2009 at a total cost of $1.6 billion. But NASA called off that launch in the summer of 2008, citing potentially mission-threatening problems with three of the rover’s primary instruments. Life-cycle cost shot up 56 percent. Those  overruns were paid for by NASA’s Planetary Science Division.  MSL’s current life-cycle includes $1.8 billion for development, two years of operations on Mars, and the cost of an Atlas 5 rocket.

Mars launches are possible only every 26 months. Another delay would have piled on at least another $570 million worth of expenses, according to a report published in June by the NASA Office of Inspector General.

When MSL was conceived in 2000, NASA estimated it would cost $600 million.

MSL is scheduled to land on Mars on Aug. 6. Touchdown will depend on the success of a first-of-its-kind landing device that will use retrorockets to slow the 900-kilogram Curiosity rover’s descent, then lower it to the surface with a tether.

MSL’s mission is to analyze soil samples from the Martian surface, which it will extract from the ground with a drill and load with a scoop into an onboard chamber. The car-sized rover will study the planet’s geology and search for signs that might indicate Mars once harbored life. The mission is slated to last 98 weeks, or one Martian year. Transmissions from MSL will take about 15 minutes to reach the Earth from Mars.

The flagship NASA rover carries an international payload of science instruments, including contributions from the Canadian and Russian space agencies, and the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain.


NASA Picks Gale Crater for Mars Science Lab Landing

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.