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Emily LakdawallaNovember 8, 2007

News Flash: ChemCam and MARDI have been saved!

There has been a lot of consternation in the Mars community recently because of a rather severe set of descopes to the science instrument packages being developed for the next Mars rover, MSL, to be launched in 2009. Last month, NASA announced that to prevent any further cost overruns on MSL, the following actions would be taken:

Late today, I got the announcement that two of these instruments have received a reprieve, MARDI and ChemCam. The best news is about ChemCam, without which the rover would have had almost no ability to figure out, from a distance, which rocks were most worth investigating up close. Anyway, here's the full text of the announcement, which was posted on the MEPAG website.
Announcement from Alan Stern & Jim Green, NASA Headquarters

November 8, 2007

Dear Colleagues

We are very happy to announce that MARDI and ChemCam's cost issues have been solved and both instruments are going forward to launch on MSL.

Malin Space Science Systems has agreed that there will be no additional costs to NASA for the completion of the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI). Furthermore, funds returned to the Mars Exploration Program from the unfortunate elimination of MARDI operations on Phoenix will be used to support MARDI integration on MSL.

In the case of ChemCam, LANL, the French Space Agency (CNES), and even other MSL instrument team members have developed a series of descopes and support arrangements to allow instrument completion, reducing the development cost-to-go by a little over 80%--i.e., from $2.5M to about $400K. As a result, ChemCam will be funded another $400K by the Mars Exploration Program, allowing them to complete development.

This outcome is even better than we had imagined possible in September, when MARDI was descoped and ChemCam was cost capped to save money so that MSL itself could complete development without raiding other missions or R&A.

We thank MSSS, LANL, and JPL for their diligence and hard work in finding solutions to these payload issues. We also thank the community for their support of the Mars Exploration Program, the MSL mission, and for the concept of containing costs on one mission so as not to jeopardize others. The support of the NAC in commending our cost control efforts in SMD is also very much appreciated.

MSL's launch is now just 21 months away! Though there remain many challenges ahead, the mission remains as exciting as ever, and we can celebrate that that highly anticipated return will not come at the expense of other SMD projects or R&A grants.

Sincerely,
lan Stern and Jim Green

I have mixed feelings about this. It is fabulous, fabulous, an enormous relief, that MSL will not be blind to the chemical composition of rocks spotted from a distance. It will save a lot of wasted driving to spots that turn out to be similar to rocks investigated before; and will also allow the rover to spot unusual things it might otherwise have missed. These reprieves may even get science team members to stop referring to the mission as MsL (where the small "s" stands for the small amount of science it will be able to do with the descopes). At the same time, I feel like I'm supposed to be feeling super-grateful despite the fact that science capability has still, in the end, been descoped; there's still three more instruments that were affected. But descopes do happen, budgets do have to be reined in. This is probably the best outcome that could have been hoped for. I just wish we could have saved all the ChemCam and MARDI team members -- and all the MSL science team members, really -- the panic of the last couple of months.

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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