Image Credit: NASA

Curiosity is the newest addition to the Martian rover family. During it’s two year mission, the rover helped to cement our understanding of the Red Planet. After being reviewed by NASA’s planetary senior review panel on September 3rd, the rover was criticized for “lacking scientific focus and detail” and the panel stated that Curiosity’s scientific return left much to be desired.

Some back story, every two years, NASA commissions a review panel to look over the current extended missions and offer recommendations on how NASA should proceed; by continuing funding, discontinuing the mission, and others. An extended mission is any mission that is currently operating past it’s expiration date. The seven missions under review are Cassini, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, MER Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express (for U.S. contributions), Odyssey, and Curiosity. The panel recommended NASA continue funding of these missions, and offered many of their own suggestions.

With Curiosity, the mission has been criticized for lacking scientific observations during its extended mission, with specific regards to “scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements, and assessment of uncertainties and limitations.” The panel is concerned that Curiosity’s team seems more focused on covering distance (so the rover can reach Mount Sharp sooner) than they are with performing science; an example of which was a time when Curiosity’s handlers cut some observations of Martian clays short (which are important for determining the long term geological history of Mars). This isn’t the first time Curiosity has had an observation cut short; sometimes, NASA has sent Curiosity past objects of potential interest without analyzing them in an effort to cover more ground.

In addition, the proposal submitted by the curiosity team was slammed for several other inadequacies, to quote bullet points from the report:

  • Although the Curiosity team stated they would strive to identify sites where analyses will optimize the ability of addressing the science objectives, the roles of ChemCam and Mastcam could play in this are not discussed. Similarly not discussed was the synergistic role such ground-truthing would have in this mission, or for identifying similar deposits in orbital data for different areas on Mars.
  • The proposal did not provide a convincing argument for reaching the upper-most sulfate unit. The panel is deeply concerned that observations in the clays, which may be more relevant to the habitability question, could be cut short because traverse distance will take precedence over scientific analyses.
  • It was unclear from both the proposal and presentation that the Prime Mission science goals had been met. In fact, it was unclear what exactly these were. Upon detailed questioning, the team noted that the Level 1 requirements were actually engineering capability requirements with which the mission launched and are not reflective of the state of fulfilling mission success criteria, which were not addressed quantitatively.

“In summary, the Curiosity … proposal lacked scientific focus and detail” was the conclusion made by the panel. The panel offered some suggestions to increase Curiosity’s scientific output – most of them basically boil down to “stop and smell the roses,” or rather “stop and vaporize some rocks.”

Of the missions reviewed by the panel, four of the seven were criticized. Below is a summery of the review given the remaining 6 missions.

Cassini:

“The Cassini mission received our highest rating. It was the only mission to achieve a consensus rating of “Excellent” for science merit on the basis of the Guideline budget. The Cassini mission has contributed groundbreaking science in the past and has the potential to continue this during the final three-year Northern Summer Mission (NSM).”

That glowing review summarizes the sheer success of the Cassini mission, which has helped revolutionize our understanding of the Saturnian system. The report mentions the remaining three-years of Cassini’s mission, and unhappily ends on the note that Cassini’s mission will end when the spacecraft takes it’s final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO);

This is one of the missions the panel criticized. Specifically, the panel was concerned with a lack of detail in the proposal from the LRO team as well as their answers to followup questions. The panel also believes that some of the LRO’s instruments have reached the end of their scientific usefulness and should be turned off.

Opportunity:

“The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity continues to make important scientific discoveries on the surface of Mars” was the glowing review given Opportunity.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO):

In images taken of Newton Crater by the Mars Reconnisence Orbiter in 2011 show what may be salt water flowing on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA)

The MRO is on it’s third extended mission and was also given a very good review of the mission. They identified “21 investigations grouped in six broad categories” that helps to highlight the mission’s success – the arias are “habitability and aqueous environments of early Mars, recent climate variability, contemporary surface changes, atmospheric observations, and campaigns of opportunity (observations of Comet 2013/A1 Siding Spring and its influence on the atmosphere, and synergistic observations with the MAVEN mission).”

Mars Express:

Mars Express is an ESA mission that NASA collaborates on. The panel was concerned with some funding requests made by the Express team, such as why the High Resolution Stereo Camera needed calibration when it has rarely been mentioned in scientific papers and the team was unable to provide any detail about the level the images are suppose to increase after the calibration is done.  There also seems to be a lot of communication problems between the different teams involved in the Express mission, which makes it much more inefficient.

Mars Odyssey:

Odyssey is approaching its sixth extended mission. If it’s approved, NASA will direct the spacecraft to a new orbit to look at several new things. However, the panel disagreed and states that the Odyssey team didn’t make any “convincing arguments” that changing Odyssey’s orbit will result in any dramatic increase in scientific output.

The panel recommendations are just that, recommendations. Ultimately, NASA could accept or reject the review and the review represents one step in the long path governing how NASA decides what missions to continue and which ones to cut. However, ultimately, it all comes down to money and is dependent on how much Congress allocates for space science.


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