Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review says NASA Curiosity rover missing 'scientific focus and detail'

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, composed of more than 50 images using its robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, on Feb. 3, 2013. 

The image shows Curiosity at the John Klein drill site. A drill hole is visible at bottom left. 

Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer

NASA's planetary senior review panel harshly criticised the scientific return of the Curiosity rover in a report released yesterday (Sept. 3), saying the mission lacks focus and the team is taking actions that show they think the $2.5-billion mission is "too big to fail."

While the review did recommend the mission receive more funding, along with the other six NASA extended planetary missions being scrutinised, members recommended making several changes to the mission.

One of them would be reducing the distance that Curiosity drives in favor of doing more detailed investigations when it stops.

The role of the senior review, which is held every two years, is to help NASA decide what money should be allocated to its extended missions.

This is important, because the agency (as with many other departments) has limited funds and tries to seek a balance between spending money on new missions and keeping older ones going strong.

Engineering acumen means that many missions are now operating well past their expiry dates, such as the Cassini orbiter at Saturn and the Opportunity rover on Mars.

In examining the seven missions being reviewed, the panel did recommend keeping funding for all, but said that 4/7 are facing significant problems.

In the case of Curiosity, the panel called out principal investigator John Grotzinger for not showing up in person on two occasions, preferring instead to interact by phone.

The review also said there is a "lack of science" in its extended mission proposal with regard to "scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements and assessment of uncertainties and limitations."

Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point at Endeavour Crater. 

Opportunity has ascended the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. 

This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013). 

Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Other concerns were the small number of samples over the prime and extended missions (13, a "poor science return"), and a lack of clarity on how the ChemCam and Mastcam instruments will play into the extended mission.

Additionally, the panel expressed concern that NASA would cut short its observations of clays (which could help answer questions of habitability) in favor of heading to Mount Sharp, the mission's ultimate science destination.

"In summary, the Curiosity … proposal lacked scientific focus and detail," the panel concluded, adding in its general recommendations for the reviews that principal investigators must be present to avoid confusion while answering questions.

The other missions facing concern from the panel included the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express and Mars Odyssey.

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