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Mars 2020 Is No Redo

The next major mission to Mars will push the envelope in technology

Posted by G. Scott Hubbard

28-01-2014 13:02 CST

Topics: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, Decadal Survey, Future Mission Concepts, Planetary Society People, Mars

This op-ed originally appeared in the January 27th issue of SpaceNews and is reposted here with permission. –ed

Recent comments by my longtime friend and colleague, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, on the Mars 2020 mission require critical examination and correction. 

As heard on National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show” and reported by SpaceNews in its Jan. 6 issue [“Garver: NASA Should Cancel SLS and Mars 2020 Rover,” page 3], Lori characterized Mars 2020 as a “redo” of the Curiosity mission, suggested that there were better ways to explore Mars that “drive technology” and implicitly criticized the planetary community’s objectives as being more about funding Mars than ambitious science. None of these statements stands up to deeper scrutiny. In summary:

  • The science objectives of Mars 2020 are quite distinct from Curiosity.
  • While Mars 2020 will use elements of Curiosity to minimize cost and technical risk, the sample acquisition and caching system will definitely drive technology.
  • Exploring Mars is complex and challenging. Only one-third of the missions to the red planet have been fully successful. Introducing new technologies while building a mission, as was the case with Curiosity, yields schedule slip and cost overrun.
  • The decadal surveys by the National Academy of Sciences (which recommended the Mars caching mission) are the gold standard of advice to the nation — because extraordinary precautions are taken to minimize bias, seek competing opinions and utilize the peer review process to ensure a balanced report.

After the twin losses of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999, I got the extraordinary opportunity to completely redesign a decade’s worth of Mars missions including Mars Science Lab/Curiosity. 

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.

That decade was no haphazard collection of missions. Rather, the program was designed as an interrelated set of projects aimed at understanding Mars as a system and particularly the potential for past life on Mars. And, as was planned, the missions were also intentionally crafted to prepare for a Mars sample return in the following decade — including developing critical technologies such as precision entry, descent and landing. It is now clear that this stepwise and strategic approach has been extremely successful.

But why Mars and why sample return? Mars is the most Earth-like of the other planets, is the most likely to have developed life, is the ultimate target for human exploration and is accessible every two years. Bringing samples back to Earth is critical for three reasons that have stood the test of time: utilizing instruments that cannot be shrunk to spacecraft size; engaging hundreds of scientists across dozens of laboratories; and most importantly, being able to follow the pathways of discovery as new experiments are conducted. As capable as Curiosity is, the instrument suite is fixed.

Mars 2020 is the caching rover called for in the decadal and will utilize much of the capability developed for Curiosity in order to minimize technical and cost risk.

But, it is argued, isn’t bringing back samples a daunting task with enormous risk? I agreed with that statement 14 years ago as NASA’s first “Mars czar” and as a consequence canceled the Mars sample return project then being studied. But built into the decade we restructured (Mars Odyssey to Curiosity) was a stepwise attack on the scientific, technical and cost risk. Those risks have now been largely retired and the stage is set for a sample return at an affordable cost.

As explained by the National Academy of Sciences in painstaking detail via the so-called planetary science decadal survey, the highest-priority strategic mission for the decade 2013-2022 is a Mars rover designed to identify and store (cache) scientifically compelling samples to begin the Mars sample return campaign. Notably, a mission to Europa was judged roughly equal in science value but came in second because of mission cost and accessibility. Missions to the outer planets typically take five or six years of travel time and the independent cost estimate at the time for Europa was far greater than for the Mars project.

Visions and Voyages Decadal Survey
Visions and Voyages Decadal Survey

The decadal process involved five panels meeting over a period of a year; almost 200 white papers with over 1,600 individual authors; a meticulously selected and balanced steering committee required to disclose all conflicts; and a final anonymous peer review. Having been a member of the steering committee, I can say without hesitation that of all the groups I have participated in the last 40 years, the decadal survey was the most scientifically rigorous. In scale, it was second only to my service on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Finally, the Mars Program Planning Group and the Science Definition Team established for Mars 2020 have now validated the fundamental conclusions of the decadal survey about next steps for Mars. 

Mars 2020 is the caching rover called for in the decadal and will utilize much of the capability developed for Curiosity in order to minimize technical and cost risk. The science objectives, though, will be quite distinct from Curiosity, and a new sample coring, drilling and caching technology will be needed. Having just successfully advised and graduated a brand new Ph.D. student from Stanford whose dissertation was on the challenges of autonomously coring and drilling samples on Mars, I know we are in fact pushing the frontiers of capability.

I am sympathetic to Lori’s call for advancing the technology of Mars exploration, but this laudable view must be tempered with real world evaluation of the cost and schedule risk. Recently an independent eight-month Mars Science Lab Lessons Learned study was conducted at the behest of NASA. The basic charter was to understand why the Mars Science Lab/Curiosity was two years late and about $900 million over budget. The key finding was that by incorporating so many new technologies such as the sky crane and titanium actuators and also selecting a science payload that was beyond the state of the art, an overrun and schedule slip was essentially guaranteed. To avoid this “budget busting” in the future, Mars 2020 must adopt a scope, including new technology, that is well defined and understood.

As a lifelong practitioner of technology research and development, project design and management — including my time in Silicon Valley at NASA Ames — I can state quite unequivocally that it is a lot easier to advocate “new technology” than it is to make it happen. Space exploration is often called a “one strike and you’re out” business. That makes it doubly hard when inserting new tools and techniques.

Let me finish with a few comments about the big picture for planetary science. Based on some reviews I chaired a year or so ago, there might well be a Europa mission that is now in the same cost bin as Mars 2020. And an analysis of funding profiles suggests that both Mars 2020 and a redesigned Europa mission (i.e., the Europa Clipper) may be started in this decade, but only if the Planetary Science Division at NASA is given a flat budget at the 2012 level of about $1.5 billion.

The success of planetary science in understanding the universe, exciting a new generation of students and leading the international community has been demonstrated time and again. Let’s keep it going.

Scott Hubbard is a consulting professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, the first NASA “Mars czar” (Mars program director), and a board member of The Planetary Society. His new book, Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery, details the program restructuring effort described above.

See other posts from January 2014


Or read more blog entries about: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, Decadal Survey, Future Mission Concepts, Planetary Society People, Mars


Enzo: 01/28/2014 04:49 CST

Mars sample return(MSR) is very expensive. I've seen reports of up to $6B. NASA apologists will try to explain that that is not going to affect the rest of the exploration program. It will and it already has. See the quote in this article "the highest-priority strategic mission for the decade 2013-2022 is a Mars rover designed to" begin MSR. Which means that MSL-2 took the place of something else, notably an overdue Europa mission. I have no problem with a MSR mission : it is a very interesting and worthwhile mission. The problem I have is in the context of current budget and the effect it's going to have on other targets. It is an extrordinary expense that needs extraordinary evidence to justify the loss of information from other targets. We know a lot about Mars' rocks, but have we found any rocks that are worth taking back at such exorbitant cost ? To me the answer would be yes only if a strong biological signature was found on them first. So far we can't seem to find organic compounds. Three previous missions (Viking 1,2 and Phoenix) have found nothing. The latest from the newest technology on Curiosity is a resounding maybe : This is very odd as the whole place should be covered with organics coming from comets etc. It is possible that the perchlorates on the surface interfere with the organic compounds during detection or maybe there's some other reason. In view of all this, MSL-2 should be essentially an astrobiological mission. Not just one or two instruments put as an afterthought : put a real effort to detect biological signatures. If perchlorates are interfering with organics detection, the study a method that works in their presence. if you need to go below 1 meter to find a more suitable environment, then do. In other words, make the sacrifice of the Europa worthwhile. Not another geologist robot. Make a real effort to find those biologically significant rocks.

Enzo: 01/28/2014 04:50 CST

Apologies for truncating the quote from the article. I needed to stay within the 1000 character per post.

Robert Walker: 01/29/2014 06:07 CST

Yes, useful for geology but a sample return might teach us little about biology (conclusion of a white paper by eight exobiologists submitted to the decadal review). Present day life is likely to be sparse and slowly metabolizing in the harsh conditions, and spread slowly. It may take millions of years to colonize potential habitats. Many such as warm seasonal flows are hard to get to, and it's hard to sterilize our rovers Past life on Mars had only a few hundred million years to get started. It must have been sparse also, because otherwise we would see clear evidence such as oily shales. Any traces of life will be severely degraded by cosmic radiation and chemical processes. At the best, samples might have chirality signatures and some amino acids. They may just have organics from meteorites and comets. It's like looking for fossils; if you can't see the fossils in rocks you collect, you are unlikely to return one to your laboratory.

Robert Walker: 01/29/2014 06:16 CST

Then there's also the problem of planetary protection. If we return a sample now, knowing nothing about what's in it, we could return living nanobes (must have been some form of life smaller than our smallest cells before they evolved), or life able to exchange DNA via Gene Transfer Agents, or XNA (different backbone from DNA). The last is most interesting but hardest to contain securely. Recent research into possibilities for new forms of XNA based life in the laboratory has highlighted this. Some researchers suggest we need safety levels such as 1 in 10^20 of accidental release, compared with the 1 in a million design criterion for a Mars sample return receiving facility. The problem is, in the worst case, XNA could set up a competing ecosystem which might supplant some DNA based life forms. We have no way of knowing if this is possible for Martian life, or whether Martian XNA would be able to compete with Earth based DNA in the same ecosystem. We should study it in situ first.

Stephen: 01/29/2014 06:28 CST

Enzo wrote: "MSL-2 should be essentially an astrobiological mission. " Isn't the ExoMars rover already "essentially an astrobiological mission"?. So does Mars really need another? I note that not long ago NASA was contemplating sending an astrobiological rover to Mars in 2018, and therefore at more or less the same time as the ESA was sending ExoMars.

Enzo: 01/29/2014 02:56 CST

@Stephen, NASA pledged a landing system for ExoMars. Then, on budget grounds, withdrew its offer (only to announce their own rover (MSL-2) a little later, something a little...let's leave at that). The result of these actions is that ESA needs a landing system for a large rover. ESA has never successfully laded on Mars. Russia has, for a few seconds in the 70s. Russia has pretty bad record when it comes to space missions recently. This means that I have serious doubts (and I'm not alone) that ExoMars, if it launches, will arrive on Mars in one piece. We had and we are having a lot of geological missions, it's time try something different. If MSL-2 is really not a redo, let's see if that is true.

morganism: 01/29/2014 05:07 CST

I understand that is is cheaper to use the standby rover parts, and keep the mission scientists involved. We have many folks trained to do this gig, and they don't want em leaving to work at Wall St, or big Pharma. But sacrificing an outer planets mission, especially Uranus Orbiter, for another dusty drive, just doesn't seem justifiable. I like all the Europa and Gany stuff , but we need to understand the poles and magnetic fields of the Ice Giants more than just about any other pure science question right now. We have lost most of the outer planet scientists already, and don't have any answers to questions posed by them previously. IF MSL2 isn't going to the Mars south pole ice fields to check out the spiders, i say, let it wait. If we have an L2 capable station or tug from the NEO program up in 10 years, we can lop a billion bucks off the planetary protection cost alone.

Paul McCarthy: 01/29/2014 11:07 CST

morganism wrote: "I like all the Europa and Gany stuff , but we need to understand the poles and magnetic fields of the Ice Giants more than just about any other pure science question right now." No way are those poles and magnetic fields a bigger, or more pure, science question than: "Is there life on Europa?" (or anywhere else). Given the time available for de novo evolution on Europa, even a negative answer has huge implications for where to look in extrasolar searches.

Stephen: 01/31/2014 06:26 CST

Thanks or the info, Enzo. Enzo wrote: "Russia has pretty bad record when it comes to space missions recently." Agreed! But why stop with just "recently"? Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) has NEVER had a successful Mars mission. In one way or another they have ALL come to grief. (In fact, it's those failures of theirs which drags down the Mars success statistics for everybody else and which everybody keeps pointing to as a portent of doom every time a Mars mission launches.)

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