Mars 2020
NASA artist's concept of Mars 2020 rover. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A report released Jan. 30 by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) identified several issues with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission that could delay its launch.

The report said that while project managers remain confident that the $2.4 billion mission to collect samples for later return to Earth will be ready for launch in July 2020, a number of problems with the rover’s technologies and contributions from international partners could derail those plans.

The biggest risk to the mission, according to NASA OIG, is the sampling system that will be used to collect and store samples of Martian rock and soil that a future mission will gather for return to Earth. That system, an essential part of the mission, has several key technologies that are less mature than planned at this phase of the mission’s development.

“The immaturity of the critical technologies related to the Sampling System is concerning because, according to Mars 2020 Project managers, the Sampling System is the rover’s most complex new development component with delays likely to eat into the Project’s schedule reserve and, in the worst case scenario, could delay launch,” OIG stated.

According to the report, five of seven key technologies needed for Mars 2020 had a technology readiness level (TRL) of five or less on a one-to-nine scale, less than the six recommended when the mission went through a preliminary design review in February 2016. Three of those five immature technologies are in the sampling system.

The report added that the sampling system is on the critical path for the mission’s development, which means that delays in the sampling system will eat into the schedule margin for the overall mission. As of December 2016, Mars 2020 had about seven months of schedule margin.

The report also raised concerns bout the overall design maturity. Mars 2020 is scheduled to begin its critical design review (CDR) in February. According to NASA project management guidelines, by the time of CDR at least 90 percent of the engineering drawings of the spacecraft’s design should be complete, or “releasable.” OIG found that, at the project’s current rate of progress, only 58 percent of those drawings will be releasable by CDR.

Two instruments on the Mars 2020 mission have also suffered problems. One, called MOXIE, is designed to test the ability to generate oxygen on Mars, saw its estimated increase by more than 50 percent during its development. NASA has taken steps to reduce some of that cost growth by eliminating development of an engineering model and skipping further design improvements in one element of MOXIE.

Another instrument designed to study atmospheric conditions on Mars, MEDA, has suffered delays because of a “financial reorganization” by its developer, Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology. OIG concluded in its report that MEDA is unlikely to be ready for delivery to NASA in April 2018, as currently scheduled. That could require adding MEDA to the rover later in the overall assembly process, or flying the mission without the instrument.

OIG made several recommendations to NASA in its report, ranging from ensuring that the key rover technologies are sufficiently mature to working with international partners to keep their contributions on schedule.

In a response included in the report, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, accepted all the recommendations. In that response, he said all the critical technologies for the rover have now reached a TRL of six, and that the project was on track to have 80 percent of its engineering drawings releasable by CDR.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...