Stern: “The Mars program is slowly committing suicide in front of our very eyes”
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) has been beset by technical challenges and inevitable budget overruns. The nuclear-powered rover is set for an October 2009 launch and engineers are doubling their efforts to ensure the MSL makes it to the launchpad on time. In an attempt to save money and (hopefully) time, MSL program managers have decided to remove a $2 million component from the car-sized wheeled robot. A sample storage box was conceived long after the initial MSL science goals were drawn up (a pretty controversial decision in itself), so analysed rock samples could be saved for a possible future Mars sample-return mission.
Now NASA has deemed the box “of low science value” and “wasteful” on resources that could be directed elsewhere, but outspoken critics have pointed out that by removing the box is just another component on the road to the demise of NASA’s Mars exploration program…
Wouldn’t it be great if we could dig up samples of Martian rock and launch it back to Earth? Just think about the in-depth science that could be carried out on a sample removed directly from the Mars surface. Although rovers and landers are great for in-situ experiments, you still cannot beat analysis by a scientist. Assuming infinite resources, a Mars sample return mission would be technologically possible, but in the current climate of budget cuts and overspending, it is virtually impossible. The money, quite simply, is better spent elsewhere.
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So, there’s NASA constructing the most advanced rover to be sent to Mars, ever. It will be a long-term mission, powered not by sunlight but by long-lasting radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs). It will do amazing science whilst dominating the Martian landscape by day and by night. After the MSL design was drawn up, a new piece of equipment was dreamt up: a sample storage box. This may not sound very exciting, after all, its only purpose is to store rocks. Why? So a future mission can retrieve the samples and return them to Earth.
Last week, it was decided that the storage box was surplus to requirements and it will be removed from the MSL. Although it had already been built, MSL project scientist John Grotzinger (Caltech) pointed out that the instrument would have taken time away from the other instruments.
“The cache would have tied our hands to some extent,” Grotzinger said. “Now it restores our freedom.”
The MSL has run up a pricetag of over $1.5 billion, and it is expected to balloon to $2 billion by the time it launches to the Red Planet, so any excess cost should be trimmed where necessary. Alas, the storage box is low on the list of priorities and was dropped, even though $2 million had already been wasted in its development. NASA’s rationale is that more time and money will need to be put into the cache, so they may as well cut their losses.
This move isn’t a popular decision however. Ex-NASA space sciences chief Alan Stern (who resigned in March after the controversy surrounding the erroneous announcement that funds to the existing Mars rovers would be cut), is very critical of the move. “The Mars program is slowly committing suicide in front of our very eyes,” said Stern. “The only concrete step toward a sample return has been tossed after it has already been built. How does that save money?”
Indeed, this may be a signal that a sample return mission is not on the cards, certainly not involving the MSL. I would question why the sample storage box was included in the MSL at all, surely any future sample return attempt would be carried out by a devoted sample return mission? What was the motivation behind picking up rocks the MSL had analysed, only to store them for many years until a theoretical sample return robot collects the box?
When the cache was originally announced, scientists pointed out that the samples will have probably degraded by the time they are sent back anyway, so what’s the point?
Either way, the box now frees up some space on the MSL for an instrumentation cleaning station, but I can’t help but think the $2 million waste could have been prevented…
Original source: Herald Tribune