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Curiosity Rover Science Plan Slammed by NASA Review Panel

Planetary science senior review still supports continued funding

Posted by Casey Dreier

03-09-2014 13:55 CDT

Topics: Mars Odyssey, Cassini, Space Policy, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity, Mars Express, Mars Exploration Rovers, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Curiosity rover's continued mission to explore Gale Crater was singled out as "lack[ing] specific scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements" in a harsh report by a recent NASA review panel [download the PDF of the full report].

The report also criticized the Curiosity mission's leadership for perceived hubris, calling out Project Scientist John Grotzinger for failing to appear in person to answer the panel's inquiries. That, combined with a lack of clarity on the science goals of the extended mission, left the panel "with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail."

Curiosity sampling the Martian surface


First the wheels, now this
The Curiosity rover's scientific mission faced harsh criticism from an independent review panel: "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."

Despite this assessment, the review panel recommended continued investment in Curiosity and six other planetary exploration missions. "The science value (or science per dollar) of the extended missions exceeds the science gain from any planned mission, and all have important strengths," stated the report, which went on to declare that the continued operations of existing spacecraft are "essentially new missions without the development and launch costs."

The report made a series of recommendations for ways in which Curiosity could improve its science return, including reducing its time spent driving so the team could spend more time on science operations. This would necessarily delay the rover's arrival at the upper layers of Mt. Sharp, one of the stated goals of the mission.

The other major flagship mission, Cassini, received far better marks from the panel, and they approved a three-year extended mission that would take Cassini to the end of its life. This is a strong statement of support for Cassini, which until recently had faced significant uncertainty about its future in the White House's budget requests.

Every two years, NASA convenes a panel of expert scientists to review its existing set of planetary spacecraft. This "Senior Review" provides NASA leadership with recommendations on whether the space agency should continue to pay for missions that have already met their original goals.

While the majority of costs for spacecraft are spent designing, building, and launching hardware, there is a small but significant ongoing cost to operate it. Operations include paying engineers and technicians to keep the spacecraft healthy, as well as scientists to help direct the day-to-day observations and parse the data that comes down. Missions also have the equivalent of utility bills, like paying NASA's Deep Space Network to communicate with their spacecraft.

NASA's planetary program has been so successful in the past 15 years that the number of operating missions has continued to increase, placing increasing strain on the Planetary Science Division's (PSD) budget. Right now, the PSD commits one fifth of its entire budget to operating existing missions, limiting its ability to develop new ones. The Senior Review process was instituted to provide independent, objective assessments of the science value for each mission, so NASA could make smarter decisions about which ones to keep, and which ones to turn off.

Again, the 2014 Planetary Science Senior Review recommended continuing every single mission. It provided a ranking of the cumulative science return for the cost of each mission's proposed plan for their extended missions:

Mission Rating
Cassini Excellent
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Very Good/Good
MER Opportunity Excellent/Very Good
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Excellent/Very Good
Mars Express (U.S. contributions) Good/Fair
Odyssey Very Good/Good
Curiosity Very Good/Good

The report detailed some potential savings by "descoping" (turning off) certain instruments or simplifying operations of existing spacecraft, and provided higher rankings for Mars Express, Odyssey, Curiosity, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter assuming those recommendations were accepted.

NASA officials emphasized that the senior review was just one piece in the decision process to continue operating its spacecraft. And while there is scientific justification to continue all existing missions, it all comes down to the budget provided to the Planetary Science Division by Congress in 2015, as well as the long-term budget planning provided by the White House in 2016, as to whether this missions will actually go on.

See other posts from September 2014


Or read more blog entries about: Mars Odyssey, Cassini, Space Policy, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity, Mars Express, Mars Exploration Rovers, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter


J. Wheeldon: 09/03/2014 05:28 CDT

Well done Casey for shining a light on the work of the Review Panel. MSL is particularly interesting. I've enjoyed following MSL all the way with the help of The Planetary Society and the Mission has been a huge success but Project Scientists should take on board criticisms and maximize Mastcam images to further science and engage the public.

Michael Paine: 09/03/2014 07:33 CDT

Hi Casey. I see from your blog that you are probably not on vacation. I have sent you (and Jennifer) several emails about the lightsail project but have had no acknowledgement. I apologise for using your blog to contact you but, being in Australia, there is no other easy way to do it. Mission Impossible - delete this as soon as you have read it.

Adolf Schaller: 09/03/2014 10:58 CDT

Hi Casey, I must say, this 'report' by a NASA science review panel is surpassing weird. I can understand the need to keep tabs on missions to ensure they continue to deliver science as originally outlined and budgeted, but with regard to Curiosity in particular, it seems incredible that the panel seems to overlook that it has already delivered a wealth of great science, and is in fact in the process of driving toward its originally planned scientific target, namely, the base of Mount Sharp, where a great deal more awaits to be learned. What makes this panel think the Curiosity mission is NOT attempting its original goal of ROVING over to investigate the intriguing geology at the base of Mount Sharp? That WAS and IS the original intent of the mission, and WAS and IS what they are IN FACT striving diligently to accomplish. It is also troubling that they would resort to "calling out Project Scientist John Grotzinger for failing to appear in person to answer the panel's inquiries" and publicly announcing an IMPRESSION that "the team felt it was to big to fail"! That is ludicrous and, in my view, utterly uncalled for. For what its worth, it's my impression that advisory panel recommendations like this stiffens the tendency toward a conservative constipation that refuses to recognize the actual reality of the nature of scientific discovery, which in turn diminishes science: One cannot always anticipate what a mission is supposed to answer. That is a ROVER out there on the Martian surface. It IS DOING precisely what it was designed to do; it's EXPLORING. It is ridiculous that this advisory panel should weigh in and 'determine' that Curiosity isn't up to a perception of scientific snuff. It landed in its prescribed landing ellipse, it performed amazing science observations at and near its landing site, and now that it is attempting to reach its originally intended goal, exactly according to plan, this 'advisory panel' makes recommendations that might curtail that eventuality? That's nuts.

Adolf Schaller: 09/03/2014 11:43 CDT

Just saying, but if NASA really wants to save whatever little money they acquire from the government (as you have recently so splendidly outlined in your posts), they ought to spend a little bit to engage themselves and the public in a decent effort to educate the idiot politicians who seem bent on wrecking every aspect of learning in our society.

Adolf Schaller: 09/04/2014 02:16 CDT

...well, at least properly educating the public that votes those bozos into office. NASA efforts in public affairs and/or education - ever since they decided it was important to dabble in 'public outreach' basing it on the absolute worst aspects of commercial pap - is a topic better explained in decent detail elsewhere.

Paul Wren: 09/04/2014 11:43 CDT

Mr. Schaller, have you read the entire report by the Senior Review panel? I believe they are within their right to expect more from the Curiosity team. $2.5 billion dollars were spent on this mission, and 8 samples collected over a two-year span does not seem a good value. It is clear from the report that they did not receive sufficient information or support from the MSL team for the purposes of this review. There are a lot of missions and not many dollars, so mission scientists should give sufficient effort to justify their funding requests.

Adolf Schaller: 09/05/2014 10:28 CDT

Mr. Wren: yeah, I did. That was the FIRST thing I did after reading Casey's report here...precisely because it was so troubling. "It is clear from the report that they did not receive sufficient information or support from the MSL team for the purposes of this review. There are a lot of missions and not many dollars, so mission scientists should give sufficient effort to justify their funding requests." Yes, no kidding. "It is clear from the report..." So they say. Obvious. Can you imagine the possibility that anyone might disagree with parts of an 'official' report? Can you accept the possibility that anyone should be able to voice an opinion contrary to parts of what a Senior Review Panel says and how they say it? Is it possible that I should object top you mentioning a large sum of money expended on a mission that would have cost precisely as much if such an advisory panel had NOT determined anything amiss? Are you seriously suggesting that number has anything remotely relevant to what the advisory board said or what I said? Did you bother to read what I wrote as carefully?

Adolf Schaller: 09/05/2014 11:25 CDT

And, Mr. Wren, when you speak so easily about science return ("8 samples collected over a two-year span does not seem a good value") you obviously neglect (as I have mentioned) that the rover was delivered within its landing ellipse and as a ROVER is in FACT accomplishing its mission goal to reach its target region AS PLANNED. Evidently you seem blind to the amazing science that Curiosity has already delivered with its relatively brief foray into the intriguing region near its landing site (Glen Elg/Yellowknife Bay). Are you suggesting that the rover should not have checked out that region as part of its objective? Do you really think that more 'science value' would have been obtained within the last two years if it had ignored that and forced to drive to its original destination? Do you really think the mission scientists should not have exercised due caution in driving (as they have become aware of problems with Curiosity's wheels) to the originally planned destination. Do you really have a problem that the mission team has paused to do magnificent science along the way? Its a rover. Its designed to run along the surface for a length of time. It is doing its job, as designed, and its mission team is doing its job with exceptional professional excellence. They ARE returning science - have you ever bothered to look what your 2.5 billion dollars have so far delivered? Go to the site and look for yourself. Since you have a tendency to make money an issue with regard to effective science return, I might mention the trillion-dollar-plus expenditure on over 2400 X35 fighter aircraft which have a peculiar tendency to incinerate or melt the ground they take off or land on, necessitating a multi-billion dollar expenditure to upgrade surfaces of aircraft carriers and airfields. Personally? I consider Curiosity to be a bargain. I will always object to NASA infighting over the minuscule amounts it is given by congress. Your tack doesn't fix it.

Frederick Thurber: 09/06/2014 08:14 CDT

The criticism of Grotzinger seems misplaced. Although I have only heard him talk at press conferences, I am from New England and have to put up with Bill Belichick press conferences. Compared to Belichick, Grotz is a model for openness and insight. Even when Grotz gets the most obnoxious or ill-informed questions from the pop press ("So when will you arrive at Mt Sharp"), he has been polite and patient. The criticism of Grotz seems incorrect. This report seems like internal NASA politics and bickering between directorates rather than a valid criticism of the MSL project.

Bob Ware: 09/06/2014 10:05 CDT

MSL science team is doing a first rate job. The internal NASA review is not the right assessment and it was (my opinion) not done correctly. The science team is busy doing their job. The paper pushers need to go to the scientists (make an appointment) and do the review on site. If MSL shutdown right now, it has already made the the sole discovery that would rate the mission a phenomenal success. The found indications of neutral water (so I read months back). That discovery alone is what we are overall searching for. Therefore the next missions out will know where to start life searching. All of the other landers and rovers never gave us this tid bit of data. Sure signs of water are all over Mars but the MSL site is the bonanza of lander/rover successes. Post that, bureaucrats, let these people do the mission, please. If you want to review them, send the assigned reviewer to an appointment with them so that their work in not severely interrupted.

Bob Ware: 09/06/2014 10:11 CDT

Also: let this mission run as long as the spacecraft functions. Turning of a working spacecraft is a very bad thing to do. MSL is still going to make Mars shattering discoveries in the near future. Leave that rover roving so those discoveries can be made.

Torbjörn Larsson: 09/07/2014 07:34 CDT

My impression: - No missions, not even Cassini, got the Overguide/Optimal budgets that maximizes science. Some even got descoped. - All missions got slammed for being optimistic about getting the Overguide/Optimal budgets. Specifically, they tried to keep personel rather than descope instruments and keeping science (analysis) on the other. The Senior Review could easily find instruments that were less productive scientifically (as measured by the coarse measure of rate of papers). - The procedure was criticized for being to short to straighten all questions out. Especially the poor access to Grotzinger (phone during one of two rounds of questioning) "caused confusion and generated more questions than were actually answered." They will change that to 2016. - Curiosity is targeted for (or at least not protected from) a Descope budget, due to the problem with insufficient science due to promoting traveling distance. Notes on Casey's article: - "Right now, the PSD commits one fifth of its entire budget to operating existing missions, limiting its ability to develop new ones." The 2014 Planetary Senior Review panel puts these extended missions as " essentially new missions without the development and launch costs". But there are drwabacks too. Missions are done with outdated instruments on generally secondary science targets. (Exceptions would be of the type of looking at extended periods or new seasons.) And they don't support the Planetary Science division keeping its ability to build new missions. - The report "and provided higher rankings for Mars Express, Odyssey, Curiosity, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter assuming those recommendations were accepted." Actually, the slammed Curiosity wasn't given a higher ranking. I suspect Grotzinger's absence had something to do with that. (It "generated more questions".)

Torbjörn Larsson: 09/07/2014 07:59 CDT

@Schaller: Your comments comes over as emotionally motivated. I'm not sure if it is worth trying to respond. But let us see how it goes: "What makes this panel think the Curiosity mission is NOT attempting its original goal of ROVING over to investigate the intriguing geology at the base of Mount Sharp?" That is a strawman of your construction, because that isn't what they said. They are concerned with the low rate and the quality of delivered science. EM1 is shooting for the original possible end target of the mission, reaching the upper-most sulfate unit. The Curiosity team is projecting the degradation of the power system, much needed under climb, but gives no reason why not an EM2 extension mission couldn't do some of that science. [p6 in the report] Hence EM1 prioritize travel over science. There are two problems with that: - The low rate of science: In EM1 "[certain measurements] are minimized, as only eight (8) samples will be taken in two years". - The low quality of science: -- Among minimized measurements is the much desired search for organics, which follows the successful search for water. -- The priorities promotes the topmost sulfate unit at the expense of the underlying clay units, "which may be more relevant to the habitability question". The recommendation, which is by necessity partly directing what science should be done, "is a descope in the traverse distance as EM1 would better serve science by focusing on the Paintbrush, Hematite, and possibly the Clay units and doing a better job of characterizing these, than [sic] focusing on the upper layers in EM2." To be fair to the Curiosity team, I think their short term strategy includes extra and prolonged stops if necessary. But as long as it isn't a top priority in the long term strategy, YMMV. Executive decisions is slanted towards rushing the mission as long as they shoot for the sulfates instead of the bottom-most (or clay) units.

Torbjörn Larsson: 09/07/2014 08:30 CDT

One can take that further: What happens with the science with the "descoped" mission (scoped on science actually) if there is no EM2, or if Curiosity's motion system fails under EM1? They will not get a characterization of the bulk of the Mount Sharp layers, which is a unique insight into Mars geological history. So, the Senior Review panel prioritize biology and early hydrology at the potential expense of geology, geophysics (informed by a long period of geology) and later hydrology. Under habitability/search for organics priorities, which is what sells the whole Mars program to the tax payers, I can't fault them. If the priorities is Planetary Science, a balanced science, I could possibly start to argue. [Personally, I have an interest in astrobiology. Right now the first 1.5 billion years of Mars history seems more important than the later parts, which would be informative on current crustal habitability. And there are other missions for that, InSight comes soon. Again, your personal MMV.]

Joe: 09/07/2014 09:53 CDT

MSL was touted by NASA as an Apollo project for a new generation, in terms of firing the imaginations of young people. But after the first few months the public outreach has almost completely dried up and two years later most don't realize it's still operating. The few times a story has threatened to capture the attention of the public (e.g., organic signatures) it has been soft-pedaled and downplayed, with the effect of killing interest. Anecdotally, just the other day someone (an engineer with an interest in all things science) said to me, "Is that rover that landed two years ago still doing anything? I haven't heard squat. It makes me think they're not finding what they hoped to." I just said, well they're still heading toward the mountain where they can investigate layers of geologic history, and they've already detected evidence of a habitable lake environment in the crater. Now we see in this report that the panel feels the primary science objectives have in fact not been met! Hoo boy. There's a big PR failure here IMO.

Dougforwrldsexplr: 09/07/2014 10:44 CDT

Joe, a agree with you that the Curiosity was bad public relations especially with the confidence in finding organic chemicals. I would have liked to see that and thought I would see it by now at least methane. Why is it that the ESA Mars Express twice and a ground based telescope saw methane on Mars and Curiosity hardly sees any? I wrote and kept on topic to ESA about the Mars Express results and asked if they had got any results more recently especially since Curiosity landed on Mars that would confirm their results but they failed to respond to my e-mail from several months ago. If other places than Curiousity have seen methane on Mars why aren't they seeing it now, if they are seeing it now why don't they publicize it more and if they have got more results recently showing negative results then why did NASA make things sound so promising that they would find organic chemicals? I think the Viking lander results also suggest some organic chemicals.

Paul Wren: 09/08/2014 02:29 CDT

Mr. Schaller, thank you for responding in such a thoughtful and civil manner. I mean, what was I thinking? Glad you could set me straight.

GPBurdell: 09/09/2014 05:18 CDT

OK, here's where actual science runs up against boosterism and proponents with personal biases, hopes, and fantasies in ways that end up hurting the space missions themselves. The methane "detections" on Mars were all tentative and even speculative (polite way of saying controversial). That's how science is supposed to work: You put out such results, with appropriate caveats, and see if they can be corroborated or get shot down. But these got picked up on and blown out of proportion by people (bloggers, fanboys, and some public media "science reporters") whose agenda was to show that life DOES exist there (because it's GOT to), that the methane MUST be getting produced from biological sources (how else?), and we've got to get people there ASAP and find the source! Now THAT would get people excited, and make a GREAT story! Sorry, but the instruments on Curiosity have consistently shown no detection of methane in Gale Crater. That has been repeatedly stated by the team in its reports and by John Grotzinger. BUT ... Rather than believing the actual repeated measurements by instruments that are well calibrated and functioning properly -- that there is no detectable level of methane in the atmosphere in Gale Crater, and the instrument error limits are so low that [barring some unknown methane sink or destruction mechanism] there is no way that the proposed levels of methane could be being generated anywhere on the planet -- the hype gets believed: THAT CAN'T BE RIGHT! The methane is there. This has to be somebody's fault! So that MUST mean NASA isn't doing its job, isn't handling PR correctly, the team is failing in its mission, ignoring biology, etc. etc. Bottom line to Congress: NASA is wasting our money! (Oh, and "Can't trust these scientists. They keep changing their story.") In fact, the MSL science team is doing exactly what it's supposed to do: reporting the actual findings without embellishment and speculation.

GPBurdell: 09/09/2014 05:49 CDT

To their credit, for once, NASA/JPL PR (however poorly they may be doing re. publicizing the actual status and accomplishments of MSL or any of their other ongoing missions) hasn't tried to grab headlines by hyping questionable results or mis-stating or misrepresenting what's actually been detected and discovered. As for other organic chemicals (organic, not biological), if you can't read the actual reports, go watch John Grotzinger's video updates on the MSL mission on the MSL web site (e.g., in the Martian Diaries section), where he details how difficult it is either to find organic compounds in the harsh surface conditions of Mars, or to clearly distinguish them from other chemical sources of carbon. Sorry if this doesn't meet your preconceived expectations/hopes/fantasies/biases/agenda. That's science. Live with it.

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