- NASA Watch
- May 29, 2023
Results of Planetary Science Mission Review: MSL = Yawn
NASA Planetary Senior Review Panel Report
“After the presentation and subsequent discussion within the panel during executive session, other questions were formulated and then presented to the Curiosity team. Unfortunately the lead Project Scientist was not present in person for the Senior Review presentation and was only available via phone. Additionally, he was not present for the second round of Curiosity questions from the panel. This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice. … As Curiosity is a flagship mission, the panel was surprised by the lack of science in the EM1 proposal (the Overguide budget would support greater roving distance over samples analyzed, with only a promise of a maximum of eight analyses throughout EM1).”
“There should always be one Senior Review panel – not two that meet at separate times as there was in 2014. The Senior Review is for the Planetary Science Division, not the Mars Program and then everyone else. Having one panel assures that ALL missions are treated equally and fairly.”
I wonder why an ESA mission is on this list.
NASA worked with the ESA member nations in development of and is a science partner in operation of two instruments that are on the Mars Express orbiter, MARSIS, the radar instrument, and the ASPERA spectrometer. JPL helps with the image processing and also the spacecraft navigation.
also Mars Express can be used as a relay satellite for the rovers on Mars.
only so many ELECTRA radio relays about Mars
When NASA partners with a foreign space agency on a science mission, both agencies conduct senior reviews on their parts of the mission.
Arrogance or cover-up of a wasted mission due to technical or planning failure? Probably only time will tell.
neither. suggest you actually read the report. it basically says that the review panel felt that Curiosity isn’t doing enough science and that the people that represented the Curiosity science team to the review panel didn’t present themselves very well.
I’m not sure. I read the Curiosity review a bit more negatively. It includes comments like:
“It was unclear from both the proposal and presentation that the Prime Mission science goals had been met. In fact, it was unclear what exactly these were. Upon detailed questioning, the team noted that the Level 1 requirements were actually engineering capability requirements with which the mission launched and are not reflective of the state of fulfilling mission success criteria, which were not addressed quantitatively.”
“…the lead Project Scientist was not present in person for the Senior Review presentation and was only available via phone. Additionally, he was not present for the second round of Curiosity questions from the panel. This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice.”
i think that’s a slight on the presentation of the Curiosity team’s information to the review panel, not that Curiosity doesn’t have a science mission.
the review panel did not get the information they wanted.
The imaging provides considerable data. Nevertheless the small number of samples is surprising.
it looks like they have been using the laser to do much of their composition analysis. most of the rock they have been around on the crater floor has been more or less the same, so i’d expect more sampling once they reach the layered areas where there is more variety.
The panel specifically slammed them, not for the powerpoint, but for the submitted proposal.
what was their proposal?
The proposals aren’t generally released. For comparison, the proposal for the Cassini 2012 senior review (for FY2013-2014) was 40 pages plus over a hundred pages of supplemental material.
so what you’re saying is, we can’t know if the review panel’s criticisms are valid.
Actually, we’re seeing far more than I would have expected. For initial proposals for PI-lead missions (e.g. Discovery or New Frontiers) or instruments on directed missions (e.g. Cassini, MSL, Mars 2020, Europa), the proposals are not released. Nor are the panel’s reviews. All we get to hear is the final selection. (Which, in some cases, may differ from the reviews for “programatic reasons.”) Here, at least, we do have the panel’s review.
I think the one solid thing we can say is that the same panel reviewed all the Mars extended mission proposals (five, if memory serves) and MSL was the only mission criticized in this way. Four out of five apparently did a substantially better job of proposing for extended mission funding.
I only have the panels comments on the proposal (which is future tense):
Examples of the significant problems the panel found with the Curiosity EM1 proposal are given here:
The capabilities of Curiosity provide the only current way to make certain measurements on the Martian surface (detection of carbon, in situ age-dating ability, and measurements of ionizing particle flux). However, in the EM1 plan, these are minimized, as only eight (8) samples will be taken in two years (two from each of the four units to be visited). This means that during the prime and EM1 missions a total of 13 analyses will be 6 made by a highly capable rover. The panel viewed this as a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission.
Despite identification of two EM1 science objectives, the proposal lacked specific scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements and assessment of uncertainties and limitations.
Although the Curiosity team stated they would strive to identify sites where analyses will optimize the ability of addressing the science objectives, the roles of ChemCam and Mastcam could play in this are not discussed.
Similarly not discussed was the synergistic role such ground-truthing would have in this mission, or for identifying similar deposits in orbital data for different areas on Mars.
The proposal did not provide a convincing argument for reaching the upper-most sulfate unit during EM1. The panel is deeply concerned that observations in the clays, which may be more relevant to the habitability question, could be cut short because traverse distance will take precedence over scientific analyses.
Although the proposal claims that the rate at which Curiosity’s power subsystem is degrading will require conservative analysis beyond EM1, it provided no evidence that, should all EM1 objectives be accomplished,
additional science could not be planned for EM2.
It was unclear from both the proposal and presentation that the Prime Mission science goals had been met. In fact, it was unclear what exactly these were. Upon detailed questioning, the team noted that the Level 1 requirements were actually engineering capability requirements with which the mission launched and are not reflective of the state of fulfilling mission success criteria, which were not addressed quantitatively.
as i said, it very much sounds to me like the Curiosity team did a poor job of presenting the information they gave to the review panel. they may have focused on where they want to go and what the technical abilities of the rover are without emphasizing what they would do with those abilities once they get to the places they want to go to.
I just realized there may be a disconnect here. NASA reviewers are normally told they may _only_ consider the information in a proposal. They may not consider information they happen to know, but which the proposers.didn’t include. The policy is that the proposers are responsible for saying everything that needs to be said. If the proposal doesn’t show it’s good science the policy is to assume it is not. That’s not the panel, it’s what NASA tells the panel to do.
It definitely does sound like the review panel was expecting to hear more information than was presented to them.
IMNSHO most of Curiositys’ problems arise from it’s origins.
It was originally recommended in the previous Planetary Decadal as a New Frontiers-class engineering demonstration of the Skycrane landing system. The rover itself was supposed to be about midway in size between Spirit/Opportunity and Curiosity.
The Mars program people morphed it into a flagship-class mission and rammed it past the Europa mission to the head of the line, throwing a classic hissy-cow every time someone tried to oppose them. Having got their way, they proceeded to mismanage the thing, blowing up the budget and schedule, screwing over the rest of PSD in the process.
This thing has been has train wreck for years. It’s about time someone called them on it.
Its not just that “Curiosity isn’t doing enough science”, it is that their submitted extended mission plan was horrible.
They were pretty scathing…
The extended mission’s plan “lacked scientific focus and detail.”
“The proposal lacked specific scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements and assessment of uncertainties and limitations,”
“The panel viewed this as a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission,”
“The panel is deeply concerned that observations in the clays, which may be more relevant to the habitability question, could be cut short because traverse distance will take precedence over scientific analyses,”
“It was unclear from both the proposal and presentation that the prime mission science goals had been met. In fact, it was unclear what exactly these were.”
yeah, i think that all falls under what i said. the review panel doesn’t think that Curiosity is doing enough science, and it’s very clear that the Curiosity team didn’t do a very good job of their presentation to the review panel.
Not exactly – It is what they are proposing in their submitted plan, not what they have already done (altho that was insufficient), or how the conducted themselves (altho they didn’t like that either) that was the target of their severe complaint.
fine. “Curiosity isn’t doing enough science in the proposal” better?
actually yes. They submitted a proposal for additional funding. What are they going to use that funding for? In order to find out they had to submit a proposal. The review was severe about that proposal.
Sounds like they are more interested in the technical and engineering of a land speed record rather than collecting science data on the way which will slow the traverse.
i very much doubt that’s true. while they do want to get to the foothills of Mt. Sharp as soon as possible so they can get to studying what’s there. they won’t be able blaze through that area anyway – they’ll have to pick their way around hills and through valleys while avoiding rough terrain.
as i said, it very much sounds to me like the Curiosity team did a poor job of presenting the information they gave to the review panel. they may have focused on explaining where they want to go and what the technical abilities of the rover are without emphasizing what they would do with those abilities once they get to the places they want to go to.
Personally, I thought it was because of the wheels degrading then want to beeline while they can.
that may be part of it. but the plan always was to spend a few months doing science at Yellowknife and then head to the entry point of Mt. Sharp as quickly as possible. they want to get to the layered terrain in the foothills so they can poke around there.
the review panel’s comments seem to show that they are under the impression that they just want to charge past the interesting layers in the foothills as well, and i don’t think anything could be further from the truth.
which is why i think the curiosity team obviously did a poor job of presenting what they want to do. something got mixed up or lost in translation.
Was watching a video about the one year rundown…
at 52:38, he is talking about how the short trip to yellow knife turned out to be a lot longer than expected.
“and the other aspect is that (chuckle) this rover is kinda hard to operate .. it is a beast .. and it is very complex an our sorta pre landing notions how long it would take to drill the first time an an that sorta thing .. probably everything doubled.”
Maybe that is why they slowed down the stop and test routine until they got a lot closer to the goal.
i think that is the case, yes.
Yeah, it covers both the rather thin results up to now and warns about not ramping up in the future. I was amazed at the harshness of their tone. It seems like the panel felt they were being seriously dissed.
5 samples in 2 years, and huge amounts of cash to collect just 8 more??
‘scuse me, but this mission is to collect science, not just a showcase flashy tech machine
It’s generally not useful to attribute motivation in a vacuum: “This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail” hardly moves the ball forward. As I read the report there was nothing leading to this petulant comment. It’s off-putting at the very least; they could have pointed out that his presence might have been useful. Moreover, the comment taints the efficacy conclusions.
On the other hand, the questions and apparently poor answers on science issues are equally off-putting. While it’s possible that the PI might have won the day, it is far more likely that any number of upper-level scientists could have carried the argument. I am left with the conclusion that while the panel was a little pissy, the project indeed has management issues.
Again, I’m not sure about this. I am surprised by the “too big to fail” part, especially since the review also used to “It was unclear from both the proposal…” (which, in this sort of review is a euphemism for “They screwed up and left out something important.”) The polite phrasing in one place and a slam in another is odd.
But I’ve also seen the time and effort other projects put into these senior review proposals. MSL was, after all, asking for over $100 million for a two-year extension. Missions asking for far less put in a huge amount of work to make sure they do clearly cover all the things the MSL proposal was criticized as leaving out. The idea of a project scientist who couldn’t be bothered to attend the review in person is also disturbing. On other missions in a similar situation, that would be inconceivable. From the text of the review, it really looks like the MSL project put in far less effort, and took the senior review far less seriously, than the other missions which were reviewed.
Keith I thought you would have responded more to this point made at another site:
“The report charged Curiosity’s science team of inadequately utilizing the rover’s scientific capabilities, such as the ability to detect life-supporting minerals in Martian soil.”