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Mars 2020 Science Announcement Live-blog

NASA's next Mars rover now has a mission

Posted by Casey Dreier

09-07-2013 13:57 CDT

Topics: Future Mission Concepts, Mars

Artist's Concept of Mars 2020 Rover, Annotated

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Artist's Concept of Mars 2020 Rover, Annotated
Planning for NASA's 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on re-using the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives with the 2020 mission.

1:12pm PDT: And we're done. This was possibly one of the most lethargic press conferences I've hard about Mars in a long time. I kept asking myself, who is this for? Why was there so much time spent on talking about how the report followed NASA outlines? Where is the passion for this? They just made the first step towards returning samples of Mars to Earth! That's huge!


It sounds like NASA is accepting the recommendations in the report, especially regarding the cache. There has been a lot of resistance from the Office of Management and Budget about the concept, since they really don't want to commit to three big flagship missions in order to get these samples back. It sounds like they are at least ok with acquiring them, since the mission will pursue other science at the same time.

That said, no one on the panel sounded very hopeful about getting these cached samples back to Earth anytime soon. This could change at any point, though, as budgets rise and fall over the next ten years. But getting samples back from Mars is hard, and technology investment must happen now to reduce technical risk and cost in the future. Even if budgets improved in a few years, it could still be decades before laboratories on Earth can unlock the secrets of Mars.

1:05pm PDT: Grunsfeld: "very likely that we will pursue other planetary objectives before we return these samples." Hmmm.... how long can these samples remain on the surface?

12:41pm PDT: Reacting to a question about why this mission doesn't search for current life on Mars, Mustard responds that we don't know enough about what current life would look like and in what kind of abundance it would be in. It would be a waste of resources. Since we understand what habitability was like in the past, we have a much better likelihood of finding something.

12:36pm PDT: Grunsfeld, reacting to a question from a reporter regarding how the sample return might work, emphasizes that this is just the first step, and that NASA has not taken any steps towards the actual return of the samples. He doesn't rule out that human explorers might be the ones to acquire and return the cache. (Not a good statement suggesting how quickly NASA plans to move forward on the next steps after acquisition).

12:32pm PDT: Honeybee Robotics has a cool concept video of how the 2020 might acquire samples for caching:

12:49pm PDT: In response to a question regarding why not search for current life, Mustart says that we wouldn't know enough about current life, if it exists, or in what abundance. It wouldn't be a good use of resources to do so. Since we know a lot more about habitability in the past, looking for past biosignatures within that context is much better.

12:26pm PDT: Mustard recommends improvements to the Entry-Descent-Landing process to get even closer to the really interesting stuff without having to drive for two years to get to them.

12:20pm PDT: Mustard is summarizing the report, highlighting the need for caching, context minerology, fine-scale minerology and imaging, fine-scale chemistry, organic carbon detection, and detection of past biosignatures. This is all in the report, but the question is, will NASA follow this?

12:15pm PDT: Jack Mustard, head of the Science Definition Team, is speaking now. He's burying the lead a little bit by emphasizing how the SDT report meets the requirements set by NASA. Good! Now what about the science goals?

12:10pm PDT: You can view slides related to this teleconference here:

12:07pm PDT: Grunsfeld (head of NASA Science) kicks off the meeting with a recap of Curiosity and current Mars science. Nothing really new yet. Reminds us that these are recommendations, and that these are "potential" instruments on the rover. The next steps will be for NASA to release "Announcements of Opportunity" for instrumentation on the rover.

11:57am PDT: In December of last year, NASA made the surprise announcement that it was preparing a new rover to land on Mars in the year 2020. At the time, all we knew is that it would be a near-clone of the Curiosity rover. Today, NASA is responding to a report by the mission's Science Definition Team (SDT) that recommends that the rover collect and store samples for eventual return to Earth. This goal – known as "caching" – has been the holy grail of Mars exploration for decades. Will it actually happen now?

We'll have a full analysis of the Mars 2020 SDT report later this week, but for now, let's see what NASA's reaction is. You can watch the press conference live on uStream: starting at noon PDT.

See other posts from July 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Future Mission Concepts, Mars


Gene Van Buren: 07/10/2013 10:59 CDT

Thanks for the minutes on an interesting discussion topic. The Honeybee video was very cool, but inspired me to ponder: If you're going to leave a cache somewhere to be picked up by a later mission, it better be nearly immovable to prevent potentially strong winds from kicking it across the surface somewhere in the interim. But you don't want to carry a heavy cache unit to Mars just to act as a paperweight. Seems a bit of a dilemma to me.

Bob Ware: 07/10/2013 04:01 CDT

This looks very interesting. Are they also going to core sample drill into the ground at various locations? How is a future spacecraft going to locate these sample packs? At each drop off is the spacecraft going to signal a then current orbiter so its location can be determined and relayed back for record keeping so that a future spacecraft can locate the samples? Knowing Congress, we cannot make a cost effective power source to keep a beacon running until we get there so that may be the best alternate option at this point. Just staying in the general area seems kind of short sighted. How deep can this drill go?

Casey Dreier: 07/11/2013 01:35 CDT

@Gene: I don't think it has to be too heavy. Remember that the martian atmosphere is 1/100th as dense as Earth's so even high winds don't carry that much force.

Casey Dreier: 07/11/2013 01:38 CDT

@Bob: Yes, the idea would be that they sample all over the place in a variety of rocks and soils. These would all go into a single cache, though, dropped off at a specific point. They'll know where that point is from telemetry from the rover as well as orbital data, so no active beacon would be needed. Then you land a system that contains a small rover whose job it is to retrieve the one sample container and place it into a Mars Ascent Vehicle (aka rocket) for launch in martian orbit.

David Frankis: 07/12/2013 07:28 CDT

I would guess that the lack of enthusiasm arises from the uncertainty around this. The scientists were never going to accept complete abandonment of the Decadal Survey, and the budgetary approvers were never going to accept a mission that doesn't deliver value unless further missions are approved. So you have both the cacheing and the past life search. Note that the search for past life is first in the list. At some point between now and 2020, the mission will come under budgetary pressure. At that point, things lower in the list will be at risk of being removed from the design. So cacheing will be at risk, and I'm sure that the SDT know this.

Brett Pantalone: 07/12/2013 09:02 CDT

The objectives of this proposed mission seem very confused. Does it make any sense to design a sample collection mission if there are no plans to get those samples back to earth? It seems ridiculous to cache samples for possible pickup by future human geologists.

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