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U.S. 2020 Mars rover faces delays

A new inspector general report has pinpointed a number of issues that could cause a delay in the 2020 launch of the next American Mars rover mission.

The biggest risk to the mission, according to NASA OIG, is the sampling system that will be used to collect and store samples of Martian rock and soil that a future mission will gather for return to Earth. That system, an essential part of the mission, has several key technologies that are less mature than planned at this phase of the mission’s development. “The immaturity of the critical technologies related to the Sampling System is concerning because, according to Mars 2020 Project managers, the Sampling System is the rover’s most complex new development component with delays likely to eat into the Project’s schedule reserve and, in the worst case scenario, could delay launch,” OIG stated.

I find it puzzling that the sampling system is an issue. This rover is essentially based on Curiosity, which has very sophisticated equipment for grabbing and even storing samples for periods of time. I don’t understand why such systems could not be quickly revised for future retrieval.

Nonetheless, there are other problems however.

Two instruments on the Mars 2020 mission have also suffered problems. One, called MOXIE, is designed to test the ability to generate oxygen on Mars, saw its estimated increase by more than 50 percent during its development. NASA has taken steps to reduce some of that cost growth by eliminating development of an engineering model and skipping further design improvements in one element of MOXIE.

Another instrument designed to study atmospheric conditions on Mars, MEDA, has suffered delays because of a “financial reorganization” by its developer, Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology. OIG concluded in its report that MEDA is unlikely to be ready for delivery to NASA in April 2018, as currently scheduled. That could require adding MEDA to the rover later in the overall assembly process, or flying the mission without the instrument.

One of the reasons the Obama administration decided to make this 2020 rover mission a reboot of Curiosity was to save cost and development time. Thus, it does not speak well for NASA’s planetary program that they are having these problems.

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