NASA Shifts Gears: Next Mars Rover to Leave Some Equipment Behind
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory is tentatively planned for 2009 liftoff. The nuclear-powered rover is loaded with scientific gear, including a caching device to collect specimens for possible return to Earth by a follow-on mission.
Credit: JPLCorby Waste

Word is that NASA's mega-rover – the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – will fly to that destination sans a sample cache device. The equipment would have been used to scoop up red planet dirt or rock for possible robotic pickup at a later date.

The cache hardware was advocated by former NASA space science chief, Alan Stern, to help kick-start a robotic Mars return sample program.

The cache device was put together by NASA Ames Research Center folks. I've been advised that the equipment was finished and shipped in September down to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., where MSL is being built.

The bit of news that the sample cache hardware had bit the dust was vetted at a recent NASA Advisory Council Planetary Protection Subcommittee meeting held earlier this month at NASA Headquarters.

According to one source at the meeting: "It's outta there...For only $2 million, a very nice basket was made."

Apparently, there were two major reasons the gear fell off the mission: The science value of the equipment was considered probably low; the cache equipment was occupying real estate that could be used for an observation tray and another tool.

But still to be determined is whether or not the nuclear-powered rover is on track for a 2009 departure from Earth.
JPL Director Charles Elachi has noted that the huge rover "is the toughest thing this institution has undertaken," during a "State of the Lab" address late last month. "But this is the kind of mission we should be doing…we're not supposed to be doing routine things," he said.

"We underestimated how tough MSL was," Elachi explained. The next three or four months are critical, he said, with the rover to be fully developed by then and headed for its first environmental tests.

"If we don't get it done by January and understand all the issues, it could jeopardize our ability to launch in 2009," Elachi said.

Meanwhile, NASA has linked up with Walt Disney Studios and its WALL-E Pixar animation studios to name the car-sized MSL rover.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.