“Wasteful” Sample Storage Box Removed from Mars Science Laboratory

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.

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

37 Replies to ““Wasteful” Sample Storage Box Removed from Mars Science Laboratory”

  1. Hm. The day Lehman Bros collapsed I mentally added 5-10 years to the planned dates of all missions (including ESA, JAXA, etc.).

  2. I agree with the decision. Besides, if you want to have an interesting sample to take to Earth, one of the things you don’t want to do is leave it exposed to the Martian environment in the time you’re waiting to collect it. Mars sample return missions should collect their own samples.

  3. NASA spent millions developing a biro that worked in space. The Russians just use a pencil.

    This is an urban myth — the Fisher space pen was developed independently, with no NASA funding, and sold to both NASA and the Soviets. The details are here

    Oh, and I have an unrelated question, how much time the MSL is planned to work?
    And what is the life-span of the nuclear reactor?

    According to Wikipedia, MSL is designed to run for a full Martian year, and the RTG has a minimum design life of about 14 years.

  4. This was probably a bad decision in the first place. Why lug a box of rocks around?
    Why did a box cost so much anyway?
    Best is to wait for a later rock pickup and return mission.
    Why would a particular rock be so valuable? If it is special, just map its location.

  5. Stern needs to get a grip and stop being such a prima donna.

    Any mission to Mars to return samples will be able to collect its own based on the science that mission is to accomplish.

  6. I can see why the X prize is so important. I don’t think NASA can do anything with out it costing billions.

    2 Million for a box is utterly crazy.

    NASA spent millions developing a biro that worked in space. The Russians just use a pencil.

  7. the simple fact that a sample return mission is so complex is bad enough but the fact that they thought about returning samples from a rover already on mars adds an extra dimension that cannot be underestimated, i think they saved far more than 2 million by rubbishing this daydream idea.

  8. Well, if the sample storage box is useless anyway, why do they built it then? 😛

    Oh, and I have an unrelated question, how much time the MSL is planned to work?
    And what is the life-span of the nuclear reactor?

  9. Hold samples in a box for a future mission to return? What, on the offchance the sample return probe might not land in a part of Mars with ROCKS? Good heavens – it’s the people who put the box on who were making the program commit suicide.

    And what is the life-span of the nuclear reactor?

    A long time. Longer than the mechanisms on MSL will hold out, I’ll wager.

  10. Here is the plan. Commit to mars 2020. Invest in American high tech industry. Thats 100,000 jobs right there. Thats a shot in the arm for the economy.

  11. I can sort of see a logic to having the cache: to get rocks, you have to dig or break them up, and MSL is doing that anyway. A sample return might be somewhat cheaper if it didn’t have to take a digging arm but could just go and pick up the box instead.

    But, yes, the whole concept has to be thought through from the beginning. For example, it seems plausible that costs are dominated by the weight of what you bring back (because you have to take all the fuel for that with you, and so you need to lift all that fuel off the earth. So if you can leave the digging arm behind on Mars, it’s not going to make so much difference in the big picture.

  12. Dan Tillmann’s is soooo right, what is the point of lugging rocks about? They ain’t going any where and if they are so interesting go back and follow the tracks!
    Ya, ditch the ‘shopping basket’ sound like a noddy idea anyway…

    Pneuman, ever tried sharpening a pencil in zero-gee? Think about all the bits of wood and graphite floating about…

  13. And why not just place the samples in a tagged heavy duty protected zip bag and leave them on the surface to be picked up later? Well, think about that? You would need another travelling machine to travel over exactly the same journey. So why not have a simple shopping basket added to hang on the side to hold the zip bags?

    The more one thinks about this the dafter the whole idea becomes. You have a whole planet of rocks and sand. Most of the samples will be similar to each other. i.e you will see repeats of similar samples for a known region of known geological structure.

    It will only be the occasional one that has any difference. All you need to do is log the site. If the original sample area is known, you can return to take a second or a third sample.

    The data is much more important than the original sample. UNLESS, that is, you do not believe the result. Well the answer to that is surely, no science has any worth unless it is completely repeatable, by another researcher taking a new sample from the same location and processing it to create the same result?

    I completely agree with the decision to remove the box.

  14. I think that for the next decades to come there is no realistic chance to retrieve this box full of rock samples. We can bring spacecrafts to Mars and land them there. But we do not yet have the technology to bring a spacecraft to Mars, land it there and bring it BACK. The box is utterly useless.
    Of course, there are brilliant ideas to put up an automatic fuel generating factory on Mars, but you will need a brilliant amount of dollars to design and construct the facility, bring it into space, land it on Mars, bring it to function and keep it in that condition for years to produce that fuel. Mars is a very dusty environment, and a nasty place for liquids of all kinds. There is nobody on Mars to keep the facility tidy, there is nobody to guide a landing spacecraft to its safe landing platform next to the facility, and nobody to open the spacecraft´s petrol cap, put the nozzle in and fix it hermetically sealed, such that no fuel explodes into the thin martian atmosphere.

    kind regards,


  15. I love my Fisher Space Pen – it writes upside down so nicely! And yes, it was developed for NASA as a favor. I still love the Russian Pencil twist. I got mine at Staples, but I had to ask. It wasn’t on the 10/$2 shelf!

    I just can’t understand the thinking behind the storage box. There seems to be a never ending supply of rocks on Mars, and the chance of a lander being designated to retrieve rocks analyzed on a prior landing is nearly zip.

    It’s the mind-set of quasi-scientific bureaucrats that caused the waste of $2m on a terribly silly notion. These people should be held accountable.

  16. When first I heard about the storage box, I was averse to it. I try to figure out, what the use of it could be. I come to the following conclusion:

    Imho, landing a return capsule on Mars would be such an effort, that very less additional equipment would be in the payload. One can imagine that it would be very difficult to send a full functioning return vehicle with all the fuel and all the other things for a journey back to earth and in the same time also a rover to select fresh probes in a proximity of several Martian days travelling.

    It is clear, that the longer the return vehicle would wait for the sampler vehicle, the more likely would a damage to the whole system be. The sooner it could return the better for the probability for success.

    Therefore, it would be very useful, if a forerunner would already have selected material very carefully over a very long period of time. So there would have been reasonable time to only select precious pieces from the surface, stones and material that would obviously be of interest.

    And of course, not the return vehicle would pick up the probes, but the MSL would come the the landing site of the return vehicle.

    That is the argument, why the Sample Storage Box might be absolutely important.

  17. I have to agree with the general consensus here…why the devil would it cost $2 million for a “stoarge box”??? Lemme guess…it has the word “Coleman” written on the side?

    And people wonder why NASA has budget problems…..

  18. Dear Mr. Walczak,

    extensive gathering is the underlying mission which MSL has to conduct. A mission which main goal is to bring back a ship from the surface of Mars cannot conduct this special MSL task a second time. So it is crucial for a return mission that the scientific work in situ is already done by a prior mission and that the samples and probes worthwhile need only be picked up.

    Sampling and returning cannot be accomplished either by MSL or the return mission alone. Both missions need to be linked together.

  19. With the cancelation of the Sample Storage Bos a return mission also makes far less sense.

    Indeed, “The Mars program is slowly committing suicide in front of our very eyes”.

  20. Conic you nail it. Unfortunately it would work and that’s why Congress won’t do it. Proof? Except for the 70’s it hasn’t been done.
    Nasa will be entering another era of starved budgets (that is more so than usual), cut projects, attempts to salvage the 3 or 4 big projects, and so on. Beyond that kiss the space program off for 4 to 8 years min. Learn to root for China, India, and the New Soviets.
    Big guess on the box’s cost. Designing around it = $2 million. Why it was put in to start with = bureacrats.

  21. I’m on the bandwagon. Hauling rocks around so that future missions have to waste time and effort diverting for their recovery?? For what, the “out situ” science that can be derived.?

    Is this from Onion?

  22. Stern is absolutely right, removing the storage box is idiocy. The ultimate example of “penny wise, pound foolish.”

    Accomplishing half of a sample return mission (arguably the most difficult half!) for just $2 million would be an unbelievably good use of limited funds.

    For those who think “There seems to be a never ending supply of rocks on Mars” and all rocks are the same – if you accept that assumption then logic dictates you might as well just test rocks from earth. We’ve got plenty of them here and it would save a lot of money to use them instead of squandering funds on rockets and space probes.

  23. Millions for that, millions for this…I dont think we need millions to fight poverty or to find out the secrets of space. We only need to try all together to make our selves better

  24. Conic Says: “If they want sample return so much, they need to… START A SAMPLE RETURN MISSION.”

    1) sample

    But this Storage “Box” (a high tech device) would already have been the Sample Return Mission – part one.

    Karl is right: “For those who think ‘There seems to be a never ending supply of rocks on Mars’ and all rocks are the same – if you accept that assumption then logic dictates you might as well just test rocks from earth.”

    The bandwagon effect on this thread here lets some participants forget what the main goal of space missions commonly is: they are gathering information.

    2) return

    But in contrary, a return mission would have been a technology test in the first instance, a step necessary to develop the ability to bring humans back from the surface of Mars.

    Therefore, during a return mission there would never have been the means to fully concentrate on evaluating and selcting probes and samples from the surface of Mars worth to be in a laboratory on Earth. And so the information contained in the probes and samples would have been dramatically less.

    With a Heave ho! mission (“test ability to return and also bring some stones with!”) the price-performance ratio for each gram of surface material transfered would have decreased dramatically.

    3) suicide

    But I say “would have been”, because “The Mars program is slowly committing suicide in front of our very eyes.”

  25. For an agency that depends on others for funds NASA sure likes to throw money around. I wonder if P.E. Obama would see that as a reason to cut more funding so he can invest it in places that actually need it.

  26. No one will go to mars anytime soon.

    The US hasn’t got the money for it, neither do Russia or the EU and China has it but lacks the brains to do it

    Since we’re all half-assed egotic monkeys we’ll never get to mars until we unite funds and brains and create a UN of space exploration.

    But the US will never agree to it because of Cheney & other military industrial, excuse my french, a**holes.

  27. A 2 million dollar box…

    …suddenly, $47,000 for a hammer sounds like a bargain.

    From an engineering standpoint, they needed to streamline the process- define what the MSL will do, what is needed to accomplish that, slap the damn thing together, send it to Mars and let it do what they intended for it to do- just basic engineering thought.

  28. Dear LLDIAZ,

    in Germany, we think it is more valuable for society if a juvenile delinquent with a never-ending criminal record is send on adventure vacation for rehabilitation on a mediterranian island together with a social worker. Isn’t that so much funnier than to gain samples from other worlds? Even if the price is that Germany will no more be able to compete with the U.S. in space?

  29. The storage box idea seems such a waste that it should never have reached the suggestion stage, let alone have $2 million spent on it. Sure, it could store interesting samples the rover collects… but how would the later hypothetical (and currently unplanned) return mission acquire the samples in order to return them? It’s not like the MSL rover would still be functional at that time, so it’s certainly not going to just drive on over and drop them off…

  30. A serious critique on the concept of the actual storage box would not led to the cancelation but to a redesign to meet such topics – but what would cost a lot more.

    The tremendous abhorrence uttered by some in the audience is well fed by the way how the problem is expressed verbally:

    Because everybody “knows” what a “box” is, everybody “understands” that a “box” cannot cost $ 2 million, which is “convincing”.

    The first success for the former Soviet’s return mission from the Moon – Lunar 16 – did occur not until the preassure was off, which had been induced by the competition with America to have the first lunar samples back on Earth. Just after America had won the race, the Soviets were able to succeed with their attempts, too.

    If the constraints are too strong, then you are too weak.

  31. Even though dollhopf arguments seems pretty much right, I wonder who came up with such an odd idea: “Let’s add a storage box, Thoroughly collect samples from Martian soil and then let’s haul them for we-don’t-know-how-long and wait for we-don’t-have-a-clue-what that will came and pick us up from wherever-the-hell-we-will-be-then and take us back to earth. And hey: Let’s spend $2M on that funny idea of our tight budget, shall we?”.

    Come on…

    And U still say Europeans have funny ideas…

  32. Dear Pedro,

    as already mentioned, my first reaction to the storage box had been deprecatory. Meanwhile, at least I found wherefores pro.

    From my point of view, the doubts about “we-don’t-know-how-long” and “we-don’t-have-a-clue-what” are – in the contrary – pros. Without the critical current economical events a basket full of extraordinary samples waiting for recovery on Mars would vitally have influenced the decision making on the next steps of how to approach Mars.

    And this next steps would have been the technological preparations for the approach through humans itself.

    With a basket, full with or half filled by thoroughly selected precious samples, the demonstration of the ability to return would have had a goal. Did you ever hear about Thomas Schellings tacit agreement finding? That was what die Storage Box was really predestinated for. It was the perfect focal point. The design may look simple, but the psychological idea was ingenious. It would have been the tacit crown on top of a successful return mission (which would have been the precursor for the first men on Mars). But the current course of economy let this fine concept fail. It would have become our aiming point.

    It’s obvious that a lot of U.S. citizens experience lose of wealth these days. That is essential. Every night when I go to sleep I wonder why I still am not affected and shaken in my daily life by this crisis till to the bones. Even the unemployment in Germany is still decreasing. We know that by 2009 the impact will finally hit us with might. But we might nevertheless be able to stand tall again already by 2010.

    But will the Mars project ever stand tall again, too? We must make sure that it will!

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