Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Next Mars Rover Mission Meets Budget Hurdles

Artist concept of  NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover.

Audit: Hurdles remain for upcoming Mars mission

LOS ANGELES — NASA's next-generation rover to the surface of Mars, which is already overbudget and behind schedule, may need more money to meet its November launch date, the space agency's auditors found.

The grim news was outlined in a report released Wednesday by NASA's inspector general.

Though project managers have solved most of the problems that caused the mission to be delayed by two years, auditors found significant hurdles remained before liftoff.

The mobile Mars Science Laboratory is intended to be the most sophisticated rover sent to the Martian surface. From the outset, the mission managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been plagued by development woes that have put it behind schedule and driven up costs. The price tag has ballooned to $2.5 billion from $1.6 billion.

NASA's internal watchdog faulted project managers for routinely underestimating costs and calculated that an extra $44 million may be needed to avoid another delay or cancellation.

The latest price tag "may be insufficient to ensure timely completion of the project in light of the historical pattern of cost increases and the amount of work that remains to be completed," the report said.

The size of a Mini Cooper and nicknamed Curiosity, the rover is a souped-up version of the golf cart-size twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Essentially a science laboratory on wheels, Curiosity carries a suite of tools to analyze Martian rocks and soil to determine whether environmental conditions were ever favorable to support primitive life.

Curiosity was supposed to fly in 2009, but problems during construction forced NASA to push back launch by two years to 2011 when the orbits of Mars and Earth are again closely aligned.

Engineers had to redesign the heat shield after it failed safety tests. There were delays in shipping instruments to NASA. It took longer than expected to build and test the gear boxes that enable the mega-rover to drive and flick its robotic wrist.

Auditors found 1,200 reports of problems and failures that have not been resolved. During testing of the robotic arm, engineers discovered contamination in sample rocks and soil. NASA has since found a solution to minimize contamination, but auditors said they remained concerned that the fix would not be completed until later this month when Curiosity is scheduled to be shipped from California to Florida to be prepped for launch.

Another launch delay would increase costs by at least another $570 million, the report said.

NASA has maintained that Curiosity is no cookie-cutter rover and that unforeseen problems are to be expected when building such a complex machine.

In a two-page response, Ed Weiler of NASA headquarters said he expected outstanding issues to be fixed by launch. Weiler also said the space agency has set aside $22 million in reserves "to achieve a timely and safe launch."

Unlike the previous Mars rovers that bounced to a landing cocooned in airbags, the nuclear-powered Curiosity will use a precision landing system to gently lower itself to the surface — a tough engineering feat. Curiosity's landing site has yet to be chosen from among four finalists.

One thing Curiosity won't be able to do is take pretty pictures of its surroundings with a high-resolution 3-D camera. NASA recently nixed the camera that "Avatar" director James Cameron was helping to design because there wasn't enough time to test it before launch.

Instead, the rover's "eyes" will be digital color cameras that are three times more powerful than those aboard previous Martian surface spacecraft.

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NASA's Next Mars Rover Still Faces Big Challenges, Audit Reveals NASA's repeatedly delayed and over-budget mission to send a huge rover to Mars still faces significant budget, timing and technology challenges before it can launch to the Red Planet in November, a project audit reveals.

A new report, released today (June 8) by NASA's independent Inspector General watchdog group, found that even more money may be needed to launch the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission to Mars this year. The mission is currently slated to launch in late November or December, NASA officials have said.

The Mars Science Laboratory, which NASA calls the Curiosity rover, is designed to look for signs that Mars is, or once was, habitable to life. It "is the most technologically challenging interplanetary rover ever designed," according to the report by Inspector General Paul Martin.

Curiosity's launch was already delayed two years in February 2009 because several critical components and instruments for the rover were delivered late by contractors. The snag boosted the project's development costs by 86 percent, from $969 million to the current $1.8 billion, and its total life-cycle costs by 56 percent, from $1.6 billion to the current $2.5 billion. [Vote: Where Should NASA New Mars Rover Land?]

Because the orbits of Earth and Mars don't align that often, NASA is trying furiously to meet the November 2011 launch window. If Curiosity can't launch then, the agency will have to wait 26 months — more than two years — for another launch window.

Such a delay would require a redesign costing an additional $570 million, the Inspector General's report found.

So far, the Mars Science Laboratory team has made good progress overcoming most of the technical issues that caused the 2009 two-year launch delay.

"As of March 2011, all critical components and instruments have been installed on the rover and final preparation for shipment later this month to the Kennedy Space Center is proceeding," according to the NASA report.

However, there are still hurdles looming.

The Inspector's team found that the MSL scientists still need to resolve technical issues involving potential contamination of rock and soil samples, development of flight software, and fault protection.

And because of the delays to the project, more than three times the number of critical tasks than originally planned remain to be completed in the few months remaining until launch. There are still about 1,200 reports of problems and failures that have not been resolved, the inspection found.

"If these reports are not resolved prior to launch, there is a possibility that an unknown risk could materialize and negatively affect mission success," according to the report.
Ultimately, more money may be needed.

"Although the MSL Project has received three budget increases since the 2009 launch delay including an infusion of $71 million in December 2010, in our judgment the Project may require additional funds to meet its November 2011 scheduled launch date," the report stated.

The inspection team recommended that more funds be funneled to the MSL project to make sure that outstanding issues are resolved and the rover meets its launch date, to prevent another even more costly delay.
"NASA agreed with our findings, concurred with our recommendations, and in its response described a series of planned actions," the Inspector General team wrote.

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NASA Mars Mission


Note:  If someone is already on Mars, can't they just send photos?  It would be a lot cheaper. -SW


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