This artist’s rendering depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, with its robotic arm extended.
Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

NASA’s next Mars rover – known as Mars 2020 – has fallen under the watchful eye of the space agency’s Office of Inspector General, or IG.

It’s the role of the IG to conduct objective oversight of NASA programs and operations and independently report to the Administrator, Congress, and the public to further the Agency’s accomplishment of its mission.

In a new IG report on the Mars 2020 effort, a number of concerns have been identified, such as design stability of some of the rover’s hardware and science instruments, the rover’s actuators, and growth in the mass of the rover.

These and other issues, the IG reports in a just-issued report, may affect Mars 2020 Project managers need to achieve the mission’s technical objectives, meet Project milestones, and control costs.

Overly optimistic

As noted in the IG document, since 1964, NASA has spent more than $21 billion on missions exploring Mars, including four robotic rovers on the Martian surface, five static landers, and numerous satellite missions orbiting the planet.

Now in development, the Mars 2020 rover has several schedule-related issues that could indicate the Project is “overly optimistic,” the IG report explains.

Caching hardware for Mars 2020 rover is depicted, but is a preliminary design that in December 2016 project personnel said was replaced with an alternative design.
Credit: NASA

Largest risk

According to the IG, the largest risk to the Mars 2020 schedule is the Project’s Sample and Caching Subsystem (Sampling System), which will collect core samples of Martian rocks and soil and place them on the planet’s surface for retrieval by a future robotic or human mission.

Three of the Sampling System’s critical technologies were below technology readiness level (TRL) 6 – meaning the prototype had not yet demonstrated the capability to perform all the functions required.

The report does note that by December 2016, Mars 2020 project personnel were showing all seven technologies as having reached TRL 6.

Other challenges

Several other challenges confront Mars 2020 project managers, the IG document reports, “including late delivery of actuators (the components responsible for moving and controlling parts and instruments on the rover); foregoing an engineering model of the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) designed to assess the feasibility of producing oxygen on Mars as a cost savings measure; ensuring the rover does not exceed its designed mass limit of 1,050 kilograms; and addressing foreign partner funding issues that may affect their ability to timely deliver components to the Project.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo acquired on Sol 1591, January 26, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

Mass monitoring

Within the IG report there’s note of a redesign of the rover’s wheels to minimize the premature wear and tear the now-on-Mars Curiosity rover has experienced.

The redesigned wheels are twice as thick as Curiosity’s and add 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of mass to the Mars 2020 rover. Mars 2020 engineers are considering software changes that could improve the rover’s ability to match wheel drive with the terrain.

Credit: NASA IG

Noted in the IG document, although project managers do not foresee further mass growth of the Mars 2020 rover, they are monitoring the mass and volume of the turret. They indicated that, if necessary, additional steps can be taken such as removing a proposed helicopter technology demonstration from the mission to keep the mass below 2,315 pounds (1,050 kilograms).

Proposed helicopter for Mars 2020 rover may be scrapped.
Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

 

Planned actions

NASA has concurred with IG recommendations and has described planned actions, as detailed in the report.

“We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with our recommendations and described planned actions to address them,” the IG report states.

 

To read the full OIG report – NASA’s Mars 2020 Project – issued January 30, 2017, go to:

https://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY17/IG-17-009.pdf

 

 

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