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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Rovers are awesome, but where's the science?

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

05-12-2012 15:55 CST

Topics: Mars 2020, Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts

Now that Casey has explained the budget implications of yesterday's 2020 rover announcement, and The Planetary Society has issued a formal statement, I thought it was time for me to talk briefly about science.

A quick summary of the situation: NASA announced yesterday that the next Mars mission will be a rover based on Curiosity, in fact using many "spare parts" from that mission (but not science instruments), to be launched in 2020. Because it will be reusing existing design and some hardware, they project the mission cost, including launch vehicle, to be $1.5 ± 0.2 billion, an estimate from an Aerospace Corporation study. The Planetary Society has looked at the announcement and, as far as the budget is concerned, there's no change to policy here: NASA has merely given a name and shape to a line that already existed. There's no impact to other programs -- at least no more impact than is already being suffered from the $309 million cut that we have been fighting to reverse.

Another Curiosity, sent to a different location (my money right now is on Mawrth Vallis), could be a tremendous addition to and extension of our Mars program, so I'm excited about that. But I have some big concerns about this announcement, which boil down to this: it doesn't seem to me that science was any part of this decision, and I'm afraid of the consequences of a science-free mission selection.

Last year, the planetary science community completed an arduous, years-long task at the behest of NASA: to lay out a decade's worth of plans for the future of NASA's scientific exploration. The product, called "Visions and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013 -- 2022 (PDF)", is usually referred to as the "Decadal Survey." Now, I may say it was produced by "the planetary science community" but this so-called community is not monolithic. There are all kinds of factions, and it was a monumental effort to produce a document that enough scientists could agree on that you could claim it had broad support. The Decadal Survey may have flaws, but it represented the best consensus that planetary scientists could achieve.

The number-one priority for a large mission given in the Decadal Survey was "MAX-C," the codename for a future Mars rover. Here's the executive summary (emphasis mine):

The highest priority large mission for the decade 2013-2022 is the Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher (MAX-C), which will begin a three-mission NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return campaign extending into the decade beyond 2022....

If a cost of no more than about $2.5 billion FY2015 cannot be verified, the mission (and the subsequent elements of Mars Sample Return) should be deferred until a subsequent decade or cancelled....

And from later in the document, Chapter 6, which outlines the proposed future Mars program in more detail, and explains the science involved in the decision:

The committee, building on numerous community assessment groups, open discussions, and white papers, places as the highest priority Mars science goal to address in detail the questions of habitability and the potential origin and evolution of life on Mars. The committee carefully considered the alternative of several rover missions instead of sample return. It is our opinion that sample return would have significantly higher science return and a much higher science-to-dollar ratio. Thus, a critical next step toward answering these questions would be provided through the analysis of carefully selected samples from geologically diverse and well-characterized sites that are returned to Earth for detailed study....

MAX-C is the critical first element of Mars sample return and should be viewed primarily in the context of sample return, rather than as a separate mission that is independent of the sample return objective. The MAX-C mission, by design, focuses on the collection and caching of samples from a site with the highest potential to study aqueous environments, potential prebiotic chemistry, and habitability. In order to minimize cost and focus the technology development, the mission emphasizes the sample system and deemphasizes the use of in situ science experiments. This design approach naturally leads to a mission that has a lower science value if sample return does not occur. However, exploring a new site on a diverse planet with a science payload similar in capability to that of the MER rovers will significantly advance our understanding of the geologic history and evolution of Mars, even before the cached samples are returned to Earth.

The rover that NASA announced yesterday is absolutely not the mission described in the Decadal Survey. It is not a small one based on MER with a lower science value than Curiosity because the science will happen back on Earth with samples returned through two later missions. It may not even cache samples at all. We actually don't know what it's going to do, because no scientific goals for the mission were mentioned in the announcement. The reason they weren't mentioned is because NASA doesn't know what the scientific goals are yet; those are yet to be defined, by a Science Definition Team.

This is utterly backwards. We do scientific exploration of the solar system to answer scientific questions as a part of a grand overall strategy to understand our origins and our "place in space," as my boss likes to say. We don't just say we're sending ships somewhere and explain why later. We went through a difficult and also expensive process to identify and prioritize our questions, and wrote them down in the Decadal Survey, and NASA appears to be ignoring that process entirely here.

Ignoring that scientific consensus is a big problem on its face. But there's another problem lurking behind it. The planetary science community has been flogged over the last two years to rally behind the Decadal Survey. "Don't stand in a circle and shoot at each other," we were advised. "You're more likely to get more funding for space science if you speak with one voice in support of the Survey." Surprisingly, the diverse, fractious group of planetary scientists actually did that. In particular, outer planets scientists bought the argument that they should be arguing for MAX-C if they wanted to see NASA's budget do anything but go farther down. By ignoring the Decadal Survey in their announcement, NASA risks re-fragmenting the planetary science community. And that would be really bad for planetary science.

Honestly, I'm not sure what planetary scientists should do right now. I do know one thing, and that's that we are stronger together than we are apart. If we start fighting amongst ourselves now, we won't be able to change what's going on.

I do think that fans of Mars exploration need to be shouting about NASA not following the Decadal Survey right now, if this fragile coalition is to hold together. Where is the science in this mission? Why aren't its goals already the ones outlined in the Decadal Survey? Is this going to lead to sample return? If not, what was the point of wasting so many hours of professional lives -- and so much taxpayer money -- on the Survey process?

I'm told that after the NASA town hall yesterday, Steve Squyres -- project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers, but more importantly in this context, the leader of the Decadal Survey process -- stood up and said (and I'm paraphrasing): the scientific community has spoken via the Decadal Survey. We have said what the payload should be already, and it should be sample caching. That's a start.

I love rovers, and I also know that rovers are popular among the public. We definitely need to pay heed to what the public wants, and I know that their goals are not necessarily driven by scientific considerations. For better or for worse, the public prioritizes boldly going where no one has gone before, seeking out new life and new civilizations and all that. I am not immediately convinced that what the public really wants is a copy of Curiosity. Where's the new adventure in that? It's certainly not leading us any closer to the things the public care about: sending people to Mars, getting a chance to travel to space themselves, or looking for alien life.

Are you a fan of science? Are you a fan of using our precious resources to advance the understanding of the questions that the scientific community has agreed are most important? Do you want to see NASA attempt new challenges, like Mars sample return, or a Europa orbiter, or a Titan boat, or human exploration beyond the Moon? If you are and you do, it's time to let NASA know that, and let NASA's paymasters -- the legislative and executive branches -- know that. Make your voices heard.

See other posts from December 2012


Or read more blog entries about: Mars 2020, Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts


Joel Reed: 12/05/2012 05:02 CST

I was a little disappointed to see a "lets duplicate Curiosity" vibe from the announcement as well. I can understand and support the reuse of equipment and spares that is a great idea. However we seem to be finding out new and exciting thing about the solar system every week why aren't we getting rovers in the pipeline to other destinations. Mercury for example. With new revelations about the polar region, whose news got pretty good mainstream press as well. Following up that announcement with a rover plan could have caught a lot of imagination from the public. Other options could include Venus (active vulcanism news?) or moons like Io, Titan, Europa, Enceladus. The question to my mind; Is rover success on Mars presupposing us to Mars rover missions?

Michael Poston: 12/05/2012 08:25 CST

Dr. Grunsfeld stated yesterday that since humans are supposed to be headed to Mars this century, it is important to do a good job learning about the planet before humans get there. So it looks like human exploration is pushing attention on to Mars exploration. I just hope human exploration doesn't get in the way of doing good science.

Bill Campbell: 12/05/2012 11:24 CST

Emily. Your place within the Planetary Society and its importance is ever more evident. The news coming forth now and it's impact on space exploration must always be under a bright light. As a conduit to it all for this sites viewers and members, we thank you for being that strategically placed and well informed messenger.

Louis Friedman: 12/06/2012 12:04 CST

Emily -- wonderful (as always) commentary. Your commentary and Casey's budget article show clearly that the NASA announcement was a political announcement -- timed to influence and be influenced by the forthcoming Administration new budget submission to Congress. It was a classic political decision -- satisfying to almost no one, but probably acceptable to all involved (unless we can get things to change).

Jim Bergquist: 12/06/2012 03:50 CST

The NASA Science For Researchers - Planetary Science Division Corner has a link to a .pdf document about the Planetary Science Decadal Survey which discusses the goals of future missions from 2013-2022. They discuss some of the objectives of MSL and sample collection and return missions. Grunsfeld talked about possibly including a coring tool on the 2020 rover and augmenting the current suite of instruments. That sound like a rover with the combined capabilities of MSL and MAX-C. The science objectives of the next rover would probably benefit from feedback from the current MSL mission.

MarcC: 12/06/2012 07:51 CST

I love science, and I love rovers. But the answer to "I am not immediately convinced that what the public really wants is a copy of Curiosity. Where's the new adventure in that?" may be to back off on the pure science, and instead orient this as a colonization reconnaissance mission. Practice scouting and site resource evaluation techniques, evaluate in-situ methods for making rocket fuel (methane), try out oxygen and water "mining and extraction" techniques, and test fabricate building materials--"Marscrete" anyone? In effect be an engineering testbed to find out what colony construction and life-support technologies work and which don't. This approach would make this mission the first concrete step towards establishing a Mars base, and that might fire up the public's imagination.

Stephen Uitti: 12/06/2012 09:02 CST

Curiosity has an arm. Could Curiosity cache stuff for a sample return as is? Is it in a good spot to do this? I mean, could a return craft land more or less where Curiosity landed? Maybe this sister of Curiosity can do MAX-C. A MAX-C mission needs a catchy name, like "Hoarder". Does it need a drill to get core samples? Even if the samples are analyzed on or near Earth, it needs to pick good samples. So it needs pretty good instruments.

David Grinspoon: 12/06/2012 10:39 CST

Part of the problem is NASA's persistent inability to interpret the public's reaction to ts activities with any real sophistication. For the longest time NASA thought that the public only got excited about human spaceflight, and science took a back seat partly for this reason. And now they have seen the wonderful mass reaction to the bold landing and mission of Curiosity, and they think "The public wants us to do another one of these!", rather than "the public loves it when we do bold new missions of exploration!" which is the truth of the matter. I'm all in favor of a Mars Program, but not at the expense of a Planetary Exploration Program. Personally I think that our ongoing neglect of Venus, given the urgency with which we need to understand global climate evolution on Earth-like planets, is a huge strategic mistake.

Chris: 12/06/2012 12:18 CST

Emily, you quoted it yourself: "If a cost of no more than about $2.5 billion FY2015 cannot be verified, the mission (and the subsequent elements of Mars Sample Return) should be deferred until a subsequent decade or cancelled...." The reality is that amount of money is not there and will not be there. That's not giving up. That's facing what's real. If it's not, then we don't go to Mars and get fully behind the other options. I for one am 100% behind the Decadal Survey. That means follow the survey and scrap any additional Mars missions until the next decade.

Gerald: 12/07/2012 05:23 CST

I think, in space exploration one should think international and specialize on different goals. ESA at that moment is analyzing interstellar and intergalactical dust up to about 50,000 dalton, if I remeber right, capabale to do precision analysis in the nanogram range. So different space agencies focus on differnt goals, and should coordinate, to get the maximum scientific return. ESA is not as much in public focus as NASA, doing science in silence, but missions with high public attraction are important, as well, imho. We need scientifically interested kids to be prepared for the technical challenges of the future, mainly on Earth; rover missions on Mars are a very instructive way to come closer to science. So there is a high value of such missions beyond immediate scientific return. Science goals for the next Mars rover mission should be based on the results we get from the Curiosity mission, so I think, it will indeed be better to make final goal decisions in the next few years.

Gerald: 12/07/2012 11:01 CST

I meant, ESA is analyzing interplanetary and interstellar dust, not (yet?) intergalactic one.

Enzo: 12/08/2012 12:42 CST

"Dr. Grunsfeld stated yesterday that since humans are supposed to be headed to Mars this century, it is important to do a good job learning about the planet before humans get there. " If NASA really believe that it is gong to send people to Mars in the '30s and therefore Mars needs extra attention, then the money should come from the manned space budget as preparation for landing. The science exploration budget should not be hijacked by such a narrow focus group.

Larry Roark: 12/13/2012 08:52 CST

I have written the President and my Representative and Senators requesting they press for Space funding and all their responses were positive but now Emily says our govt is cutting over $300million..I know this country is broke but to let our space program just close will be shameful especially after Curiosity's findings and how excited the US public has become with this little rovers efforts..What is Seti-Live gets lucky and gets a "hit", do we just turn that over to the Russians?! Go USA!

Vicco: 12/17/2012 11:24 CST

Why is there no "conventional" IR lets say "AT-IR-spectrometer" on board. Organic material has very characteristic fingerprints, IR spectra are easy to verify/falsify and environmental conditions seem ideal on Mars for IR spectroscopy. Moreover the technique is simple, cheap, robust, lightweight. In couriosity --- Vicco

Jac Koltz: 12/17/2012 10:56 CST

This may be a silly question... but would it be possible to use the Curiosity rover on I a different body? Could the rover possibly be used on say Titan, or perhaps a different target. After it is now a proven platform, or are the environmental challenges just too different and the rover just designed to specifically for the Mars surface?

Emily Lakdawalla: 12/18/2012 09:00 CST

Jac, sadly, no, the architecture is uniquely suited to Mars' conditions, particularly the landing system.

Matti Karjala: 12/25/2012 01:46 CST

The performance of the Curiosity sky crane landing system was faultless as we all now know. Watching the landing live was certainly an unforgettable experience. But I have big concerns regarding the science value of a repeat mission, especially as it's quite obvious no life detecting experiments would be included. Even if another rover based on the Curiosity design would land successfully - a big if in itself - I fear public response would be less than enthusiastic. Remembering Apollo here. And if it were to crash... I'm all for continuing Mars missions, but this one has the trappings of sequels written all over it. Your commentaries are always a treat.

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