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NASA’s newest Mars rover faces further hurdles and could require another $44 million in funds before it is ready for launch this fall, according to an agency audit announced today.

The Mars Science Laboratory is supposed to launch in a window between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the alignment between Earth and Mars is the most favorable for an interplanetary trip. But as it stands now, the MSL team won’t finish all their work before launch unless they get more money, according to an internal audit prepared by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.

“The project may have insufficient funds to complete all currently identified tasks prior to launch and may therefore be forced to reduce capabilities, delay the launch for 2 years, or cancel the mission,” he wrote.

If the mission is delayed, NASA will have to spend at least $570 million to adjust mission plans to account for a new planetary alignment, not to mention the advent of the Martian summer. A Martian year is almost double the length of an Earth year, so if MSL lands in late 2013 instead of this fall, it will be just in time for a warming Martian atmosphere to stir up dust storms.

This won’t be as problematic for Curiosity as it was for Spirit and Opportunity, because the new rover is nuclear-powered rather than solar-powered. But still, dust storms could interrupt its sensitive instruments, as well as its ability to communicate with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Deep Space Network on Earth.

The rover’s life cycle costs are already expected to top a whopping $2.5 billion, partly because it is so huge and so complex. Curiosity is four times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, and it contains 10 sensitive science instruments designed to look for signs of Martian life. It is designed to land using a complicated sky-crane tether system, the most complicated extraterrestrial landing maneuver NASA has ever attempted.

Launch was already delayed once — the rover was initially supposed to launch between September and October 2009, but several instruments were delivered late and NASA had to move its window back two years. Extra infusions of cash, most recently $71 million in December 2010, have kept the project humming along, but there are apparently still several issues — as of February, there were still 1,200 reports of problems and failures that could cause a delay, including contamination issues with the rover’s soil analysis instruments, and delays in flight software and fault protection systems.

The good news is that the rover is fully built, according to the audit. But apparently the work is far from over.

[NASA, via Space.com]

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