NASA has confirmed “off-nominal data” during a dress rehearsal will delay the alien-hunting Perseverance rover’s launch to July 30 at the earliest. The delay means China could beat NASA by being the first to launch to the Red Planet with the Tianwen-1 Mars rover. China is aiming to launch its first-ever interplanetary mission between July 20 and July 25.

The rover is then expected to reach Mars sometime in February 2021 – the same time Perseverance is expected to land.

But NASA has been forced to delay Perseverance’s launch for the third time now.

The Mars rover was originally pencilled in to launch on July 17 before a series of setbacks struck.

Following the latest delay, the US space agency has also extended its launch window from August 11 to August 15.

However, NASA noted the launch window could still be extended further into August.

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The Perseverance rover team said: “Due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations, NASA and United Launch Alliance have moved the first launch attempt of the Mars 2020 mission to no earlier than July 30.

“A liquid oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate.

“Flight analysis teams have expanded the mission launch opportunities to August 15 and are examining if the launch period may be extended further into August.”

During a wet dress rehearsal, the ULA Atlas 5 rocket used to launch Perseverance to Mars is rolled out onto the launchpad.

It could cost half a billion dollars

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator

The rocket is then pumped full of propellants – liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen – and launch controllers go through all of the countdown procedures.

The rocket is then drained of all liquids and stowed away for launch day.

The Mars rover was originally pencilled in to launch on July 17.

The launch date was pushed back by three days due to a technical problem with the “launch vehicle processing”.

Two weeks later, the launch was pushed back by another two day due to “a contamination concern in the ground support lines”.

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Although NASA’s officials are confident the mission will blast off this summer, further delays could be devastating.

Launching payloads to Mars requires selecting an optimal launch window for the shortest possible trip – about seven to eight months.

If the Mars 2020 rover does not launch within this window, the next opportunity will not arrive for another 26 months.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “It’s very expensive if we have to take Perseverance and put it back into storage for a period of two years. It could cost half a billion dollars.”

Perseverance will follow in the footsteps of NASA’s Curiosity rover and search the Red Planet for signs of life, past and present.

The rover will launch toward Mars aboard an AtlasV-541 rocket from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The same type of rocket previously carried Curiosity and the InSight probe to Mars.

The rocket is provided by United Launch Alliance, Centennial Colorado.

A small helicopter drone dubbed Ingenuity will hitch a ride alongside the rover, to test powered flight in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

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