Get your act together, Curiosity! NASA panel says Mars rover needs more science, less driving

NASA Mars Curiosity rover

It’s been two years since Curiosity landed on the Red Planet, and what does it have to show for itself? Well, it has found that Mars once had rivers and lakes. Life may have once been possible on the planet. But that might not be enough for one of NASA’s committees.

NASA’s Planetary Mission Senior Review panel posted its take on seven of NASA’s major missions this week, all of which received a rating of at least “good/fair” for their plans for future missions. It issued particularly harsh words to the Mars Science Laboratory mission, better known as the Curiosity rover for, among other things, spending too much time driving.

The rover has been traveling since July 2013 toward Mount Sharp, a mountain that could answer questions about Mars’ early environment. But wheel damage has slowed its pace. Curiosity has also been making pitstops along the way to conduct science experiments, but the panel said it hasn’t planned for enough.

Curiosity mission manager Rick Welch told me in May that long travel times are just a part of putting a rover on Mars.

“Say the next thing we see from the rover that we’re interested in is 2 kilometers away. And you say, ‘Great! Is that next week?’ Well, ideally, if everything was perfect and there was a paved road, yeah, then it would be next week,” Welch said in May. “But Mars isn’t like that. It’s sort of like backpacking, where you’re always like, ‘Once I get to the top of that ridge.’ And then you see another ridge and another ridge.”

A nearly exact replica of the Curiosity rover lives in a garage at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. It emerges about once a week to test new tasks and features. Photo by Signe Brewster.

A nearly exact replica of the Curiosity rover lives in a garage at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. It emerges about once a week to test new tasks and features. Photo by Signe Brewster.

 

The full list of complaints includes:

  • Curiosity is the only NASA tool that can detect carbon, do on-the-spot age analysis and measure certain types of particles, but only 13 soil and rock samples have been completed or planned.
  • “The proposal lacked specific scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements and assessment of uncertainties and limitations.”
  • The team did not describe the future role of one of its cameras and remote sensing equipment.
  • Driving long distances may shorten the amount of time the rover could use to examine Martian clays, which could hint at the planet’s habitability.
  • The team said Curiosity’s degrading power supply could limit its use beyond its first extended mission, but didn’t prove that it won’t be able to carry out future missions or lay out science goals for those missions.
  • “It was unclear from both the proposal and presentation that the (original) science goals had been met. In fact, it was unclear what exactly these were.”

Curiosity received the same “very good/good” rating as two other experiments. The 11-year-old Mars Express satellite was the only one to receive a lower rating.

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