NASA Review Suggests Mars Rover is Underachieving

Image Credit: NASA JPL

Remember the “7 minutes of terror?”

Apparently it has been followed by two years of boredom.

A senior level review of NASA space science missions, a routine procedure in which missions are graded for a series of extensions beyond their original mission, was conducted earlier this year, and it came down heavily on the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity Rover. Basically, in the opinion of the members of the review board, MSL has produced very little science compared to its $2.5 billion dollar budget.


“The capabilities of Curiosity provide the only current way to make certain measurements on the Martian surface (detection of carbon, in situ age-dating ability, and measurements of ionizing particle flux). However, in the EM1 plan, these are minimized, as only eight (8) samples will be taken in two years (two from each of the four units to be visited). This means that during the prime and EM1 missions a total of 13 analyses will be made by a highly capable rover. The panel viewed this as a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission.”

MSL’s performance looks particularly weak when compared against what may be the platinum standard of planetary exploration, the Cassini spacecraft operating in the Saturn system, which received a consensus rating of “excellent.”

What might be more than a little troubling to Mars advocates, as well as those who would like to see more missions to the outer planets instead, is that NASA is deeply involved in preparing for a second rover mission labeled “Mars 2020” which is meant as the first step of a two part sample return effort.  As for the science it produces,  although the rover itself will be built with a similar chassis to Curiosity, the suite of instruments will be in some ways more limited, as a considerable amount of its space is dedicated to a sample collection and caching system.  With no means of actually transporting the samples back to Earth, the plan has raised some doubts.

Speaking on NPR’s Diane Rehm show in early January, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver was critical of the Mars 2020 mission stating:  “I would not redo the Curiosity mission,” she said. “I would invest that planetary science mission in doing something new like Europa, or going to Mars in a more creative and innovative way where we can again drive technology.”

Although she did not elaborate, it seems likely she may have been thinking of the Red Dragon Mars mission concept put forward by NASA Ames, which would see an automated SpaceX Dragon capsule land on the Red Planet carrying enough gear to collect samples and load them aboard an on-board Mars Ascent Vehicle to accomplish a sample return in a single mission.

For now, Red Dragon is just a proposal and Mars 2020 is moving ahead, but the Senior Level Review questioning the return of the current Curiosity mission may spark a renewed debate over how to allocate a very limited pool of resources over a very big solar system.

Posted in: Mars, NASA

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