NASA IG: MSL May Not Be Ready by November, Power Supply Problems Will Reduce Mission Capabilities

NASA IG: MSL May Not Be Ready by November, Power Supply Problems Will Reduce Mission Capabilities

NASA’s Inspector General (IG), Paul Martin, issued a report today raising concerns about whether the already delayed Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will be ready for its currently scheduled launch this fall. The two year delay from 2009, its original launch date, increased development costs by 86 percent and lifecycle costs by 56 percent, the report says. If there is another two-year slip, it will cost “at least” $570 million more. Furthermore, unexpected degradation of its nuclear power source has led NASA to reduce mission performance capabilities, the IG report reveals.

The report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is the result of an IG audit of the MSL program following the decision to delay the 2009 launch to 2011 because of technical problems with the spacecraft. The mission is to land a rover, named “Curiosity,” on Mars. It is now scheduled for launch in November 2011. Because of planetary alignment constraints, if it is not ready to launch then, it will have to wait two years for another opportunity.

The OIG gave NASA credit for resolving the “majority” of technical issues that led to the launch delay, but warned that “three significant technical issues remain unresolved.” The report also reveals that the nuclear device that will provide electrical power for spacecraft systems and instruments — the “Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator” (MMRTG) — is experiencing unexpected degradation.

The three outstanding technical issues from 2009 are contamination of rock and soil samples collected by the Sample Acquisition/Sample Processing and Handling subsystem, and development of flight software and fault protection systems.

As for the MMRTG, the reports states that there have been “unexpected temporary reductions in the system’s power output” during tests to simulate conditions the spacecraft will experience when it arrives at Mars. The MMRTG was provided to NASA by the Department of Energy, which told the NASA OIG that the degradation would not cause a “catastrophic failure.” The OIG report goes on to say that “However, as a cautionary measure, MSL Project managers have reduced the mission’s performance capabilities to processing 28 rather than 74 soil and rock samples and to traversing 4.5 kilometers rather than 20 kilometers.”

The report notes that since the decision to delay the 2009 launch, the project has received three budget increases, “most recently an infusion of $71 million in December 2010.” The OIG audit concludes, however, that more money may yet be needed to meet the November 2011 launch date, but worse, if the mission slips again, to 2013, the increased cost would be at least $570 million.

The IG recommends that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) reassess whether the project has enough money to meet the current launch date and the project manager should allocate additional resources to fix the outstanding technical issues. It then comments that SMD “concurred with our recommendations” and is closely monitoring the project and is confident that sufficient funds are available from within SMD resources. The IG thus considers the matter “resolved.”

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