A team of scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory took four years to build an ultra-high-tech camera, then bolted it onto a NASA spacecraft in January and tested it for months for its planned launch to Mars this week.
But technical problems twice grounded the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is carrying the APL's camera and five other instruments designed to study the Red Planet in "unprecedented detail." The launch was rescheduled for early this morning at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
"The delay is disappointing," said J. Walter Faulconer, business area executive for civilian space at the APL, the university's research and development division in Laurel. "But it's best to make sure everything works properly because it would be extremely disappointing if something went wrong."
The APL, Howard County's largest private employer, has a lot riding on the mission. In the past four decades, the APL has built 62 spacecraft for the military and NASA, including one that is on its way to Mercury. It has made 150 instruments for various missions. But it has never conducted a scientific investigation on Mars.
NASA awarded the laboratory a $30 million contract to come up with technology that could help detect water, or traces of it, on Mars' dusty surface. The result was a high resolution camera that could help determine whether there is life on Mars.
"The interesting places in Mars are the ones that have been wet in the past . . . because that's where life may have gotten a start," said Scott L. Murchie, the APL project's lead scientist.
The camera -- the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, known as CRISM -- breaks down sunlight reflected from Mars' surface into 544 colors. The colors help detect clays, salts and other minerals left behind by water. The camera, with resolution about 10 times as sharp as that of cameras previously sent to Mars, could locate a former hot spring or evaporated pond.
Once the spacecraft reaches the correct orbit around Mars, in about a year, the camera will float 186 miles above the planet, scanning certain areas such as smooth interiors of ancient craters that may have held lakes. After the two-year mission, the APL should have gathered enough data to fill 15,000 compact discs.
The information collected about Mars should also help future landing missions find the best landing sites.
"The more you learn about the planets, especially the ones closest to Earth, the more we can understand our planet," said Peter Bedini, the APL's project manager for CRISM. "We're not spending all this money to solve an arcane scientific question."
Dozens of contractors have contributed to the $720 million program, including Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, which built the spacecraft. The APL hired close to a dozen vendors, including Swales Aerospace in Beltsville, which built a system to keep the camera cool.
For now, most of those contractors are focused on timing.
If Mars and Earth are at opposite sides of the sun, the distance between them is longest. But if they're on the same side, the gap closes and the trip requires less energy. To make sure the timing is right, NASA must launch within the next few weeks.
The APL has an office dedicated to spinning off businesses from its technologies. So far, that division has created a number of start-ups responsible for creating 52 jobs.
Bedini said there's been no discussion yet of using CRISM's technology in other ways, but he did not close the door on the possibility.