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Contractor hitch delays NASA Mars probe

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA will miss a precious opportunity to fly a probe to Mars due to a conflict of interest in picking a contractor, delaying the mission by more than two years, officials said on Friday.

A handout picture taken by Mars Express, released September 27 shows a general view of the Mars and a marked area north of Valles Marineris September 28, 2004. The images show the Ophir Chasma, a parallel valley to the north of the Valles Marineris. The sedimentations and morphological shapes in the Valles Marineris offer scientists valuable clues about the origins of the valley systems, which are still obscure. REUTERS/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

The unspecified conflict has forced the U.S. space agency to disband the panel convened to pick a contractor for the $475-million, five-year mission.

The launch will be delayed from 2011 to 2013 because the most efficient path to Mars from Earth is present only once every 26 months, when the planets’ orbits bring them into closer-than-usual alignment.

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

Details of the conflict, which involved either 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.

“The government has done nothing incorrect or questionable,” Mars Exploration program director Doug McCuistion said in a conference call with reporters.

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.”

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

RENEWING EXPLORATION

“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 of Mars after a 20-year hiatus. Since then, it has dispatched one or more spacecraft to Mars at every launch opportunity.

Scientists are trying to determine if life ever evolved on Mars. 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 if and when the planet’s protective blanket was ever suitable to sustain life.

In addition to delaying science data, missing the 2011 launch window will cost NASA an extra $40 million or so to keep the winning contractor team funded during the two-year delay, McCuistion said.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Ray Arvidson, with Washington University in St. Louis, who serves as the lead scientist for the upcoming Mars lander mission Phoenix. “It will delay our understanding of Mars as a system.”

Editing by Xavier Briand

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