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?
12:07pm 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: http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2 starting at noon PDT.