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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.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • steven jones

    It’s complicated by the uncertainty of designing for a future retrieval mission that is undefined in any way, shape or form. Also, keeping PPO happy adds to the problem.

    Pros and Cons of Adaptable Cache
    1.Cache risk minimized, so would not dominate rover operations
    2.All tubes on board rover could be filled and made available for possible return
    3.“Best” samples for return could be identified when all science data is fully digested
    4.No need to return inferior samples with “best” samples.
    5.Caching system somewhat simpler for Mars 2020
    6.Retrieval mission need not deal with “dead” Mars 2020 rover
    1.Maximum temperature of samples may be increased above desired science goal
    2.Greater traverse potentially required for retrieval mission
    3.Retrieval mission must be able to locate and transfer tubes from surface into MAV

    (I am not a robot, as far as I know. But I could be wrong)

  • LocalFluff

    They have 8 years to put new instruments on Curiosity. Didn’t it turn out to be as expensive as the first Curiosity anyway? NASA doesn’t seem to be able to take economic advantage of things like standards and scales. SLS is just a minor adjustment of the shuttles external main tank, but takes decades and tens of billions and all infrastructure and manufacturing plants must be reconstructed as if it was a completely new kind of rocket. International cooperation sabotages also the Orion with delays and likely cancellation (which would be a blessing in that case). International cooperation is always a very very bad idea for space programs by experience and because it dramatically increases uncontrollable political risk and project complexity. MOXIE has no science value and uses a very well known simple chemical process, and putting a new drill on the arm doesn’t sound like rocket science either. But nothing is too simple for NASA.

    I worry about weird ideas about the sample collection. Of course they must be carried on the rover and be easy for a small fetch rover to drive straight to and pick up. But it has been suggested that Mars 2022(?) will leave samples behind in its track. That would require a sample return rover to drive where Mars 2022 has driven, which will require a third Curiosity, another 12 years and $3B without exploring anything new on Mars. And the sample ascent vehicle must then be a separate mission, and a separately launched orbiter with which the ascent vehicle is to dock before going to Earth. That’s another two times $3B and sometime in the late 2030s. It is strange that the third Curiosity must be more capable than the second one, since it will be able to carry all the samples. How many hundred times do they think that it will drill? More than twice per year and it beats Curiosity. It will be interesting to see private exploration of Mars and how much better it can be done. NASA is a wasteful sloth that seems to suffer from autism in its byzantine rituals and uninterest in results.

  • Wayne

    LocalFluff/ steven jones — good stuff.

    steven jones– referencing your robot inquiry, a nice clip from Bang Theory, before they Jumped the Shark.

    Sheldon a Robot?

    Considering the United States is $20 trillion in debt (and going to $21+ trillion, after the phony infrastructure “Plan” is implemented) I find it hard to believe all these NASA fantasies can be carried out in a timely or economical-manner.

    Unless they kill the Lifeline Program (“free cell phones”), upon which we spend $4 billion/year (up from $400 million at implementation, or vastly reduce spending on the SNAP Program (“food stamps”), there just isn’t any money laying around.
    (2007- SNAP costs were about $30 Billion, by 2011 that amount had escalated to $72 Billion.)

  • LocalFluff

    On the other hand. “Inspection reports” like this usually just copy what the project management is saying and already working on. These delays might already be back on track. If nothing was delayed at some time, they would’ve used too generous a schedule.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “SLS is just a minor adjustment of the shuttles external main tank

    You have said this before, and it is still wrong.

    The shuttle’s External Tank had mount points on the side for the Orbiter. Fuel and oxidizer flowed out the Orbiter side to fuel the main engines, located on the Orbiter.

    SLS’s first stage tanks require engines mounted on the bottom, not an Orbiter mounted on the side. SLS also requires additional stages and payloads mounted above the tanks, so the nosecone and fueling port at the top are no longer there, and the structure must be changed to reflect all these differences. Even the sizes of the tanks are different. Fuel and oxidizer must flow to the engines at the bottom, not the side, and the number of engines has changed, so the flow rate is likely different.

    The manufacturing is different, the stresses are different, the length is different, and my reading is that the diameter is 30 cm different.

    It is a completely different kind of rocket, in-line rather than a side-mounted payload.

    LocalFluff wrote: “NASA is a wasteful sloth that seems to suffer from autism in its byzantine rituals and uninterest in results.

    NASA is a creature of Congress, operated by the president’s administration. The talent and capabilities of many of the people at NASA have long been squandered by the ineffectual political process. It is that same lousy political process that makes international cooperation seem to be “always a very very bad idea for space programs.”

    Many commercial satellites depend upon parts from multiple countries to arrive on time and work the first time, which usually happens. Sometimes multiple companies join forces to accomplish their projects.

    Why the politicians can’t similarly get along is a mystery. After all, that is their primary job. The root of the job’s title coming from the word “politic.” Maybe politics attracts those with political greed but science and engineering does not attract as many greedy people.

    Bang Theory Jumped the Shark? When did that happen? I started watching it, thinking that it was too well written to go bad.

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