Belt-tightening at NASA has forced the space agency to cancel a planned $500 million Mars orbiter that was expected to be built by Lockheed Martin.
Negotiations between the aerospace company and NASA had been expected to lead to the award of a design-and-build contract for the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter.
But the mission was canceled last week to cut costs, said Andy Dantzler, director of NASA’s solar system division.
“It’s obviously a painful decision,” Dantzler. “We canceled MTO because we simply don’t have the money in the future budget to support it.”
Dantzler said the decision is final.
The orbiter was to be the first craft in a network of Mars communications satellites. The orbiters would relay data collected by robotic surface rovers, including the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled for launch in late 2009.
“Obviously when we lose an opportunity like this that was within our grasp, it’s disappointing,” said Steve Price, director of business development for civil space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
The loss of the orbiter means there is now more riding on a successful Aug. 10 launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, built at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Canyon facility southwest of Denver.
The Reconnaissance Orbiter will now serve as the main relay for the data to be returned by the science laboratory.
“With the cancellation of MTO, the burden now falls on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,” Price said Thursday.
Since the telecommunications orbiter was designed mainly as a data- relay spacecraft, not a science probe, it was considered by some NASA officials to be “the thing that had to go,” Dantzler said.
It had been slated for launch in 2009 and would have pioneered the use of lasers for planet-to-planet communication. The spacecraft also would have tested techniques that will be needed to bring Mars rocks back to Earth.
The orbiter’s design was based largely on the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which will be the largest and most sophisticated spacecraft to circle Mars. It is scheduled to launch from Florida aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas V, also built at Waterton Canyon.
About 1,000 Lockheed Martin employees worked on either the spacecraft or the rocket, said deputy project manager Dave Olschansky.