Its Do Or Die For Curiosity, But A Replacement Is Possible

Front view of Curiosity shows the rover’s arm fully extended holding complex science instrument turret with percussion drill, magnifier, APXS instrument and other devices. Photo Credit: Alan Walters /

If the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) landing on Mars fails “we will dust ourselves off and try again,” says Doug McCuistion, the Mars Exploration Program Director for NASA.

He said Presidential Science Advisor John P.  Holdren is present at JPL for the landing. It is doubtful McCuistion would be that forthright about a reflight if he did not have at least a degree of support from the Obama Administration for it.

There will be a period of greif and mourning, but we will pick ourselves up and carry on,” said John Grunsfeld NASA associate administrator for space science.

Curiosity’s Gale Crater landing site is located at a major boundary between the martian highlands and lowlands meaning that water may have flowed into Gale, one of the lowest places on the planet. Image Credit: NASA JPL

Project manager Pete Theisinger  tells  AmericaSpace  “there are a enough spares and qualification hardware left from the original MSL development that a second Curiosity rover development  would be possible in a relatively short time depending upon funding.”

“We do not know exactly what a replacement would look like but it would not cost $2.5 billion,” said Theisinger , MSL’s current cost including overruns.

“We do not want to repeat the mistakes that led to a span of 36 years between twin Viking Landers that both had analytical laboratories and MSL  that also has labs as part of its science payload

The MSL spacecraft is now within 112,000 mi. of Mars and  begun its formal Entry  Descent and Landing (EDL) approach , pointed 1 deg. off the Earth and 37 deg. off the  Sun.  The heaters within the catalytic beds for the Mars Landing Engines have been turned on to prepare them to fire several hours from now.

Extremely high resolution of just one small section of the landing ellipse floor shows the geologic detail at the location. About 400 separate blocks have been defined and divided among the science team for definition so wherever Curiosity lands study will have been done on its local surroundings. Photo Credit: NASA JPL

Although  the vehicle’s trajectory is off by a few thousand feet, managers have decided to bypass the trajectory corrections maneuvers that were available both yesterday and today to instead  allow the vehicle active guidance to correct that error during the descent, said Brian Portock MSL mission manager.

Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Cape Canaveral shortly before its Nov. 26, 2011 launch show how it will look sitting on Mars after a successful landing late Aug. 5 Pacific time. Silver can on back is antenna to relay satellites, Mast with ChemCam laser and multiple cameras stands 7 ft. tall and front of rover has spare drill bits and rust colored inorganic carbon test blanks. Arm extends to extreme right. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert / Wired4Space



About the author

Craig Covault

Senior writer Craig Covault has covered 17 U. S., Russian and European Mars orbiter and lander missions over the last 40 years, most of them with Aviation Week & Space Technology and now with AmericaSpace.

Favorites include his coverage at the NASA Langley Research Center of the development of the 1976 Viking 1 and 2 landers and the landings and surface coverage from the JPL of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004. Steve Squyres Mars Exploration Rover Principal Investigator allowed Covault exclusive JPL access to the science and surface operations teams after Spirit and Opportunity landed.

Covault also did extensive coverage of the Phoenix North Polar Lander development and its descent to the Martian arctic in 2008.

Covault began interviews and hardware familiarization with Mars Science Laboratory Rover and Sky Crane developments at JPL starting in 2004 and was able to see the Curiosity and the Sky Crane hardware take shape throughout the development including an initial look a Curiosity when it was just a block of aluminum with holes being milled into it.

AmericaSpace and The Mars Society have partnered to provide in-depth coverage of the arrival of the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” to Mars. Stay tuned for regular updates as AmericaSpace correspondents Craig Covault and Frank O’Brien travel to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for live coverage.

One Comment

  1. I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll fly another MSL, whether this one is successful or not. Between launch costs, the increasing scarcity of plutonium 238, and budget issues, it’s hard to see a replacement flying. And while it may not cost $2.5 billion – hopefully they won’t be two years late again – there will certainly be a lot of money spent on corrective engineering and testing if we wind up cratering on Mars today.

MSL/Curiosity Pre-Landing News Conference and Rover Communication Overview

JPL Scientist Discusses Possibility of Failure