Curiosity ‘Lacks Science Focus’ as Cassini Gets ‘Excellent Rating’ Says Planetary Science Review Board

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Panel urges more drilling less driving for NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover
Curiosity accomplished historic first drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb. 8, 2013, (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals, dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination: Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The science board commissioned by NASA to independently evaluate the agency’s ongoing planetary science missions up for a renewal of funding have “severely” critiqued the Curiosity Mars rover mission for a “lack of scientific focus,” while rating the Cassini Saturn mission as “Excellent for science merit.”

With severely limited funds, NASA has to make tough choices on which missions receive funding for their extended mission requests.

The 15-member, independent “2014 Planetary Senior Review Panel” was chaired by Clive Neal, Professor of Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

The board was very concerned that the Curiosity team “felt they were too big to fail,” based on an inadequate science proposal for the extended mission.

Furthermore, the panel “strongly urges NASA HQ to get the Curiosity team focused on maximizing high-quality science.”

The board evaluated a total of seven missions, including Curiosity (MSL), Cassini, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Mars Exploration Rover (MER – Opportunity), Mars Odyssey (ODY), Mars Express (MEX), and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Summary of the 2014 Planetary Missions Senior Review Ratings

Summary of the 2014 Planetary Missions Senior Review Ratings

The reviews were based on formal written submitted proposals, in person science presentations, and Q&A for each mission, as well as panel discussions and follow-up Q&A.

The $2.5-billion Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) was judged near the bottom of the missions under review, based on the team’s science proposal for the rover’s first extended mission (EM1).

Curiosity just completed its two-year primary mission since the successful touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012.

The panel criticized the rover team’s extended mission proposal as inadequately using the robot’s full science capabilities and for focusing too much on driving to Mount Sharp, the ultimate destination, and not enough on collecting samples for analysis.

“The Curiosity EM1 proposal lacked scientific focus and detail,” wrote Clive Neal on behalf of the senior review panel.

“Despite identification of two EM1 science objectives, the proposal lacked specific scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements and assessment of uncertainties and limitations.”

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014, (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

The board was also concerned that the roles of two instruments—ChemCam and Mastcam—could play in locating sites for analysis was not addressed.

The panel was also concerned that there would be insufficient time spent in the lower layers of Mount Sharp where the chances of finding clay minerals and a habitable zone with organic molecules is the highest, compared to the mountains upper layers in a follow on EM2 extended mission phase.

“The recommendation of the Senior Review panel is a descope in the traverse distance as EM1 would better serve science by focusing on the Paintbrush, Hematite, and possibly the Clay units and doing a better job of characterizing these, than focusing on the upper layers in EM2.”

To date, Curiosity has only drilled into three different rocks during the two-year primary mission. A potential fourth drill site was just abandoned in August as unsafe. Read the detailed report here.

NASA’s Curiosity rover abandons drill campaign at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop after hammer test (inset at right) determined it was unsuitable as potential 4th drill site  in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 20, 2014, Sol 724.  Note the background of sand dune ripples and deep wheel tracks inside Hidden Valley that forced quick exit to alternate route forward. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity rover abandons drill campaign at “Bonanza King” rock outcrop after hammer test (inset at right) determined it was unsuitable as potential fourth drill site in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 20, 2014, Sol 724. Note the background of sand dune ripples and deep wheel tracks inside Hidden Valley that forced quick exit to alternate route forward. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The MSL team’s extended mission proposal calls for analyzing only eight samples over the next two years and was judged as totally inadequate and requiring immediate intervention from NASA.

“The panel viewed this as a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission.”

“As Curiosity is a flagship mission, the panel was surprised by the lack of science in the EM1 proposal … the budget would support greater roving distance over samples analyzed, with only a promise of a maximum of eight analyses throughout EM1.”

“The recommendation of the Senior Review panel is a descope in the traverse distance as EM1 would better serve science by focusing on the Paintbrush, Hematite, and possibly the Clay units and doing a better job of characterizing these, than focusing on the upper layers in EM2.”

At media briefings, this writer asked several times about the planned drilling operations and why there have not been more drilling campaigns on the crater floor along the long road to Mount Sharp to provide a wider context for answering the preeminent questions of Martian habitability past and present.

The senior MSL leadership was also called out for not being available in person at the panel discussion to answer questions.

“Unfortunately the lead Project Scientist was not present in person for the Senior Review presentation and was only available via phone. Additionally, he was not present for the second round of Curiosity questions from the panel.”

“This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice.”

The review panel says NASA should take swift action to get the MSL team focused on science, especially since NASA’s next Mars rover launching in 2020 builds on Curiosity’s design.

“The panel strongly urges NASA HQ to get the Curiosity team focused on maximizing high-quality science that justifies the capabilities of and capital investment in Curiosity.”

“Given that Mars 2020 will be built on Curiosity heritage, maximizing the science return from Curiosity would go a long way to a smooth development of the next US Mars rover mission.”

The review board states that “the Senior Review represents the most effective and efficient way of providing scientific community input.”

“Although several strengths were noted during the review, the panel felt that the problems [with MSL] are sufficiently severe that they need addressing at the earliest opportunity.”

The lower reaches of Mount Sharp are the rover’s ultimate driving objective because the sedimentary layers are believed to hold caches of water-altered minerals, based on high-resolution mapping measurements obtained by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), soaring overhead.

Such minerals could possibly indicate locations that sustained potential Martian life forms, past or present, if they ever existed.

Humongous Mount Sharp dominates the center of Gale Crater and towers some 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky.

So far, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 185,000 images.

NASA now plans a media briefing on Thursday, Sept. 10, to address the review panels concerns.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover around the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013″ indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover around the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013″ indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Stay tuned here for continuing updates.

Ken Kremer

 

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3 comments to Curiosity ‘Lacks Science Focus’ as Cassini Gets ‘Excellent Rating’ Says Planetary Science Review Board

  • ken anthony

    Are we getting $2.5 billion worth of science?

    We could do better. But if you ignore the costs I think the rover is doing fine. It’s just hard to ignore when you know what could be accomplished. A single human walking on mars would have done more in six to twenty hours. Much more.

    For 2.4 x the cost of these rover missions Mars One says they’ll put 4 people on mars.

    Is it reasonable not to consider such possible alternatives?

    The only real uncertainty at this point is lander development, but at least we know landing by some means have already been accomplished. Price after development is only about $150m to $200m per lander. You need about 4 landers for required supplies. I could easily do such a mission for less than $2.5b (not counting lander development) and humanity would be a multi-planet species (not entirely in my opinion, but arguably.)

    If the rover does nothing more it has already told us much we need to know. Sending another is wasting opportunity. We can do more.

  • Tracy The Troll

    “The recommendation of the Senior Review panel is a descope in the traverse distance as EM1 would better serve science by focusing on the Paintbrush, Hematite, and possibly the Clay units and doing a better job of characterizing these, than focusing on the upper layers in EM2.”

    So in other words it would appear that Curiosity is not following the water like they should be..Because maybe they might find something alive which would really put a damper on terra forming the planet…As terra forming costs would be in the trillions of dollars…

  • Jeff Wright

    I am loving this.

    Porco–of Cassini–is a fan of big rockets.
    One of the gnords at JPL who hates on SLS, is a bomb-disposal robot lover.