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NASA Panel: Curiosity Planning Lacks Scientific Focus

A NASA senior panel took Curiosity’s mission management to task, finding that their extended mission plan was “a poor science return for such a large investment” and “lacked scientific focus and detail.”

As Curiosity opens its third (Earth) year on Mars, it faces a new challenge: shaking out the complacency affecting its science team. Earlier this year, NASA convened a senior review panel to discuss budget proposals for seven extended missions, including the Curiosity rover. The primary task of this panel is to fine-tune those proposals to ensure the missions continue to provide worthwhile science for the money. During this review the panel, headed by Clive Neal (Notre Dame), singled out Curiosity’s proposal for multiple problems “sufficiently severe that they need addressing at the earliest opportunity.”


An outline of Curiosity first extended mission (EM1) was provided in the report. In the two years covered by the EM1 plan, the team planned to travel through four rock formations. These formations make up the foothills and lower reaches of Mt. Sharp, and are believed to contain evidence of the deterioration of Martian environmental conditions. The plan called for each formation to be sampled twice by the rover’s Surface Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. The science team felt that this would give them sufficient coverage of the formations’ composition while maximizing the overall distance traveled. This would leave the rover free to begin the ascent of Mt. Sharp in earnest during the next extended mission (EM2).

However, the devil is in the details. Here are some of the problems that the review panel found with the Curiosity extended mission proposal:

  • No explanation of the rover’s current and future scientific goals, much less whether it was meeting those goals.
  • A lack of specific scientific questions or testable hypotheses for the rover to test during the extended mission.
  • Insufficient use of SAM. The extended mission only uses this equipment eight times, or once every 3 months. As the only instrument on Mars capable of detecting organic carbon and measuring the age of rocks, the review panel felt that this was “a poor science return on such a large investment in a flagship mission.”
  • A failure to explain how the team would use the rover’s MastCam and ChemCam instruments to meet the rover’s science objectives, as well as a failure to use these instruments to help tie in Curiosity’s observations with orbital data.
  • Weak justification for the rate at which the rover was to complete its EM1 traverse. The review panel was concerned that the rover is moving too far, too fast, and missing the kind of detailed observations that could help determine the past habitability of Mars.

In addition to the problems with the proposal itself, the review panel took issue with the non-appearance of Project Scientist John Grotzinger. Grotzinger was only available during the presentation via phone, and was not available during the follow-up questioning period. As a result the panel was unable to clarify several of the issues that they found with the extended mission proposal. In their final report, the panel wrote that they were “left with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice.”

To solve the issues brought up with the proposal, the panel requested that NASA HQ step in and refocus Curiosity’s science team. The biggest issue the panel had with the extended mission proposal was that it focused too much on covering ground quickly, rather than stopping to explore the surroundings more carefully. In line with this concern, the panel recommended that the science team scale back their travel plans, making more frequent stops at only two or three of the rock units.

Highlighting this issue is the already infrequent use of Curiosity’s drill. Since landing, it has only been used roughly every six months. Despite crossing through terrain that rocks made up of clay likely deposited in habitable conditions, the science team has rarely stopped to explore them in detail. Curiosity is currently moving into rocks that are thought to have been deposited in more complex environmental conditions. Continuing to use the same playbook may ultimately build a rough picture of what happened to the Martian environment, but will miss many of the fine details that may be useful in the future.

Another recommendation was that Curiosity use its MastCam and ChemCam more for regional studies in order to help tie in orbital data with what’s visible on the ground. The panel felt that this information was critical to identifying clay deposits that may serve as a target for the Mars 2020 rover, currently in development. In addition to helping lay the groundwork for Mars 2020, the panel felt that the increased use of these instruments would make it easier to justify funding for the next-generation versions on board the 2020 rover.

Curiosity will continue forging ahead for years to come. Hopefully the panel report will lead to better science as it does so.

Image: Curiosity examines a rock in Gale Crater on September 6, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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About The Author
Justin Cowart
Justin Cowart is a geologist interested in Earth and Solar System history. As a geologist, he spends hist time looking at the ground, but in his free time he looks to the skies as an amateur astronomer.

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