Is there life on Mars? Cloud-gazing Curiosity accused of lacking scientific focus

Panel skewers mission and spots 'severe problems'

Curiosity self-portrait at Rocknest in the Gale Crater

Mars rover Curiosity recently tweeted having its head in the clouds, which just so happens to serve as a good metaphor for a mission that an independent committee of experts say lacks scientific focus.

A Planetary Mission Senior panel reviewed Curiosity's work to date on behalf of US space agency NASA.

The rover's escapades on the Red Planet have proved to be a bumpy ride for research, since it arrived there in 2012.

And now weaknesses have been apparently exposed in an extended mission proposal tabled by the Curiosity team.

As noted by the panel, the Mars Science Laboratory plans to have Curiosity:

traverse 8 km, visiting four areas representing different climactic stages in the history of Mars. The science focuses on identifying habitable environments capable of preserving organic compounds and characterising the major environmental transition from freshwater deposits to those produced under acidic conditions.

But the experts said they were concerned about the mission, which has "several strengths" as well as "sufficiently severe" problems that need to be addressed urgently.

The panel advised (PDF):

  • Curiosity provides the only current way to make certain measurements at the Mars surface (detect carbon, in situ age-dating, measure ionising particle flux), however, only eight drilling samples are planned to be taken during the two-year extended mission, which the panel considered a poor science return for such a large investment.
  • The proposal lacked specific scientific questions and testable hypotheses.
  • The roles of ChemCam and Mastcam were not adequately discussed.
  • Lack of convincing argument for reaching upper-most sulfate unit at the potential expense of observations in the clays, which may be more relevant to habitability.

The panel added that it believed "a de-scope in traverse distance with a focus on Paintbrush, Hermatite, and possibly the Clay units, and better characterising of these sites, would better serve science."

However, in spite of the criticism, the panel rating for the Mars Science Lab was "VG/G" [very good/good].

NASA's Planetary Science Division (PSD) agreed with the findings and accepted that "the efficiency of analytical sampling needs to be improved". Geological units also needed more "in-depth characterisation".

The extended mission proposal has been approved by the PSD, but a new task plan needs to be drawn up, boffins said, to much more boldly refocus Curiosity's to-date cloudy scientific study of Mars. ®

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