Audit of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission warns of potential delays
In a report issued on Jan. 30, 2017, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) voiced concerns about issues that could delay the planned July 2020 launch of the space agency’s next Mars rover. An optimal 20-day window for a journey from Earth to Mars occurs once every 26 months. Missing the 2020 launch date would result in increased costs while waiting for the next launch opportunity.
The Mars 2020 rover is planned to carry seven science instruments to further scientific knowledge about Mars. Specifically, the rover will search for signs of past life, cache rock samples for possible return to Earth by a future mission and demonstrate technologies that will support NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.
The new rover will use a significant amount of heritage technology developed for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover in order to reduce mission costs and risks. Despite these cost and time-saving measures, an audit conducted by the OIG found several risks that could negatively impact the project’s schedule.
The OIG audit found the greatest risk to the Mars 2020 mission’s schedule is the project’s Sample and Caching Subsystem (Sampling System), which is being developed to collect core samples of Martian rocks and regolith and place them on the Martian surface for retrieval by a future robotic or human mission.
During the mission’s preliminary design review, three of the Sampling Systems’ critical technologies were below technology readiness level (TRL) 6, which means the prototype had not yet demonstrated the capability to perform all required functions.
The OIG auditors were particularly concerned about the immaturity of these critical technologies because, according to Mars 2020 project managers, the Sampling System is the rover’s most complex new component and delays could eat into the project’s reserve schedule and, in the worst case scenario, cause the launch to be delayed. As of December 2016, the project was tracking the risk that the Sampling System might not be ready for testing and integration in May 2019.
The audit also found that the mission also appears to not be on track to have 90 percent of its engineering drawings completed by the February 2017 critical design review (CDR). The CDR is when a project demonstrates its design is mature enough to proceed with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration, and testing.
The audit detailed a number of other challenges facing Mars 2020 project managers including late delivery of the actuators responsible for moving and controlling parts and instruments on the rover, eliminating as a cost-saving measure an engineering model of the Mars Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), designed to test the feasibility of producing oxygen on Mars.
Additionally, managers need to ensure the rover doesn’t exceed its designed mass limit of 2,315 pounds (1,050 kilograms) and address funding issues faced by foreign partners, which may affect their ability to deliver components on time.
The Mars 2020 rover is currently scheduled to launch in July 2020 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 booster from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida.
Video courtesy of NASA OIG
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.