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Could Curiosity Rover Moonlight As Part of a Sample Return Mission? 65

Posted by timothy
from the be-grateful-for-infinite-resources dept.
pigrabbitbear writes "After recent budget cuts to NASA's Mars program, the agency's dream of a sample return mission within the next decade is dead in the water. But the $2.5 billion rover Curiosity is on its way to the red planet right now, and speculation is popping up online that it could fairly easily be retrofitted with the hardware needed to collect and store samples. Theoretically NASA would just need one more mission to collect and return those samples, turning Curiosity into the first phase of the sample return dream."
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Could Curiosity Rover Moonlight As Part of a Sample Return Mission?

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  • Cost (Score:4, Informative)

    by currently_awake (1248758) on Saturday March 03, 2012 @12:52AM (#39229463)
    Most of the cost of a sample return mission is the launcher to get the rocks back into space. Compared to that a basic rover is cheap.
    • Send politicians. Sure there is a cost but the benefit of them being on Mars and u being here would be worth it. Cheaper than another war too!
    • by khallow (566160)
      Not really. Most of the cost will be development costs which traditionally can be just as expensive as the actual construction of the vehicle. My view is that reducing the complexity of the mission so that it just lands a vehicle (perhaps one which we already use on Earth), waits for and accepts an existing payload, and then returns it, is far less complex than the original sample return mission. That will result in substantially lower development costs which will be a significant savings of the overall cos
  • Pathetic (Score:4, Funny)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Saturday March 03, 2012 @01:06AM (#39229485)

    I know a mission to bring back samples from Mars would be a true engineering challenge, and I know sending people on Mars and back would be fantastically expensive for almost no appreciable scientific return, and I know the cold war is over. Yet...

    "The agency's dream of a sample return mission within the next decade". Sheesh. That's what NASA dreams of doing within a friggin' decade now? No wonder nobody in the US is excited by space exploration anymore.

    • Re:Pathetic (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 03, 2012 @01:15AM (#39229517)

      I think the US' lack of excitement by space exploration *is* the reason it will take them a decade.

      • Re:Pathetic (Score:4, Interesting)

        by demachina (71715) on Saturday March 03, 2012 @11:08AM (#39231497)

        Its a circular problem because the "US lack of excitement" for space exploration is because NASA seldom does anything particularly exciting. The Shuttle and ISS were/are an exercise in tedious boredom, very expensive exercises too.

        Some of JPL's missions and some of the great observatory's are modestly interesting, almost exciting even, but they aren't going to capitivate the public.

        This submission seems a lot like the Saturn oxygen submission yesterday. I'm starting to think /. is the new forum for JPL/ESA/university teams to lobby for funding for their pet projects.

        A sample return mission would be an interesting technical achievement, but I seriously can't see the payoff being worth the expense. Curiosity is going to be able to examine samples in fairly considerable depth and probably in greater volume than a sample return mission. We also think we already have 99 samples from Mars from metereoites [wikipedia.org] that were ejected from Mars and have landed on Earth.

        • I second the "lack of excitement" comment. Think about it, the main proposals for the past few years have to send another rover or orbitter to Mars. Until there's a goal beyond more of the same, the money will continue to dry up.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Are you fucking KIDDING me? How could a manned mission NOT have MASSIVE appreciable scientific return? Transporting humans to the surface of another planet with a long voyage, keeping them fed, radiation free, healthy and happy. Actually performing more science in a few days than the rovers have in their entire history. The list goes on and on. Just the engineering of the space craft and habitat would have IMMENSE value to mankind. Let alone the vast amounts of technology that come collaterally from such en

    • by Osgeld (1900440)

      yep

      when we were in a race aginst the commies at the dawn it was exciting
      when we were making reusable shuttlecraft utilizing cutting edge technology it was exciting
      after 2 decades of essentially nothing hearing "but just one more mission and we can add shit to something that's almost already there" is not only not-exciting, but growing to be similar to avoiding someone who says that just some pocket change will drive his 14 year old V8 truck 2 towns over ... we both know better buddy

      • by chispito (1870390)
        The shuttle program was impressive... but exciting? I'm not so sure about that.
        • Re:Pathetic (Score:4, Insightful)

          by scottrocket (1065416) <loudfellow@gmail.com> on Saturday March 03, 2012 @03:57AM (#39229921) Journal

          The shuttle program was impressive... but exciting? I'm not so sure about that.

          For those of us old enough to remember being glued to CNN all night long, being disappointed when the mission was scrubbed-and then doing it all over again the next night, listening to John Holliman interview astronauts et al.about the future of manned space flight, watching the shuttle when it finally rose on flaming pillars-yeah, it was exciting. Absolutely. It almost didn't matter if it was the most practical vehicle or not, it was inspirational and of course, just cool.

        • by pacinpm (631330)

          I come from former communist state, we had one cosmonaut in space getting a hitchhike along the Russians. I knew that whatever I would do I have no chance to go to space. Watching shuttle flying was like watching scifi movie. In comparison to russian rockets it looked incredibly cool and modern, almost futuristic.

          You Americans have no idea how lucky you are with working space program.

          • by Anonymous Coward
            Actually, many Americans DO realize it. I believe that most Americans KNOW that the problem is not engineering or mechanical. It is having cheap economical transport that blocks us from space. That really means that the REAL problem is that some of Congress does not care. We have members there that would throw 3-4 B a year at a wasteful launch system, rather than obtaining multiple cheap launch systems, a lunar base, and having multiple mars mission all before 2020 for less cost than the SLS. Why? Because
          • Ascent video highlights from STS-129 [vimeo.com], from STS-130 [vimeo.com], from STS-131 [vimeo.com], from STS-132 [vimeo.com]. Also, the blast from the past [vimeo.com], and the last launch for Endeavour [vimeo.com].
    • by MacTO (1161105)

      One of the challenges with space exploration beyond the Moon is that everything moves relative to the Sun. This means that you have to plan the timing of missions according to launch windows that come every few years. Contrast that to expeditions to remote parts of the Earth, where opportunities come at least once a year and usually last for several months.

      Another challenge is transporting the resources. There is no meaningful comparison a "base camp" while sending a mission to Mars. There is also no su

      • by demachina (71715)

        "There is no meaningful comparison a "base camp""

        Actually there IS a comparison to a "base camp". You need to land a two or three small, self contained nuclear reactors on Mars near an abundant source of ice. Then you need to land a couple self contained robot labs next to them to start making Hydrogen, Oxygen and liquid water out of ice. At that point you have in abundance the two most essential supplies you need for a manned base without having to ship them from Earth. Once you land some habitats and ca

    • We don't have money to do exciting stuff anymore.

      When Kennedy said let's land a man on the moon in this decade, we had lots of money. The economy was booming (helped along in part by Kennedy's sound economic policy), government was running a surplus, and LBJ hadn't started his Great Society spending spree yet.

      People remember Kennedy as a Democrat and a progressive, but when it came to fiscal policy he was a pragmatist. He knew that you have to have a strong economy before you can do anything else -- s
      • by Anonymous Coward
        Kennedy cut them when Eisenhower had them at 95% on the wealthy. It made sense to cut them down to 66%.
        And WRT to a sound economy, the same is true of clinton and Poppa Bush. Both raised taxes.

        Today's problems are not caused by too much taxes, but inequality of taxes combined with too low. W/neo-cons actually gave incentives to offshore to their buddies. Likewise, W told ICE to stop going after illegals. All of this has contributed to our downfall. We need to change all of that.

        One solution is to do
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 03, 2012 @01:19AM (#39229527)

    Several considerations come to mind:

    1. A "retrofit package" would have huge ratio of ancillary equipment to payload, which is highly inefficient in terms of spending the agency's small and shrinking budget.
    2. The most interesting part of Mars is (possibly wet or icy) underground, beyond the range of ultraviolet radiation, GCR and solar wind. Since Curiosity ain't fitted with a drill, this is again inefficient.
    3. There are no guarantees that the "retrofit package" lands accurately within reach of the MSL.

    • Actually, it does have a drill [wikipedia.org], but probably not what you're thinking about.
    • If your rover identifies a target for sample return it could be used to simply mark the spot. The radio transciever could be used as a transponder to guide the lander. If the rover can grab the target then it could load the sample return capsule.

    • by khallow (566160)

      1. A "retrofit package" would have huge ratio of ancillary equipment to payload, which is highly inefficient in terms of spending the agency's small and shrinking budget.

      Sample return is far more efficient than any current use of NASA funds on Mars.

      2. The most interesting part of Mars is (possibly wet or icy) underground, beyond the range of ultraviolet radiation, GCR and solar wind. Since Curiosity ain't fitted with a drill, this is again inefficient.

      We shouldn't do interesting and valuable science on Mars because it's not the most interesting and valuable science we could do? How about you look at point 1). We either do what we can or we don't, due to budgetary constraints.

      3. There are no guarantees that the "retrofit package" lands accurately within reach of the MSL.

      The MSL itself tests the landing technology and its accuracy. If we can land the MSL accurately, then that's a good indication that we'll be able to land the sample return accurately as well. These problem

  • by mosb1000 (710161)

    Why would you want to carry out a sample return mission? There's not a single analysis you could want to do on a sample which couldn't be more cheaply done by sending the lab to mars. That's why we're sending one there.

    I suppose it might be a good precursor to an eventual human return mission.

    • There's not a single analysis you could want to do on a sample which couldn't be more cheaply done by sending the lab to mars.

      "Sending the lab to Mars" is an impossible proposition at this point. Sure, there are all kinds of very impressive analytical instruments we can miniaturize and pack into a probe, but it just doesn't compare to a full-size lab where scientists can examine the samples in person.

      • by mosb1000 (710161)

        Have you seen the list of instruments on MSL [wikipedia.org]? It is pretty comprehensive. It even does isotopic analysis. Can you be more specific about what you can't do with an instrument sent to mars that you could do with a sample returned from there?

        • by ArcherB (796902)

          Have you seen the list of instruments on MSL [wikipedia.org]? It is pretty comprehensive. It even does isotopic analysis. Can you be more specific about what you can't do with an instrument sent to mars that you could do with a sample returned from there?

          Analyze a sample under a high powered electron microscope.

          • by mosb1000 (710161)

            You could put an electron microscope in a space probe. They're not that big. The trickey part would be sample preparation. But it certainly is doable.

          • by BrentH (1154987)
            We have one here the size of a wallet. Sure, it's the price of a big car, but that's nothing NASA will flinch at.
    • Why does Nasa need to retrieve samples? We already have tools on Mars that can analyze samples (I'm sure there are some limitations). Aside from the glory of returning rocks from Mars(over rated imho) what scientific purpose does the preposed mission fulfill? How much do they expect it would cost? Lets face it we all are underwriting the cost of what Nasa does so it better be worth it. I'm a skeptic so unless you come at me with some hard facts chances are that Mars can keep it's rocks for now.
    • by Patch86 (1465427)

      I can see the point of a sample return- you can do far better tests in Earth's numerous fantastic laboratories than you can on Mars with equipment nailed to a rover, and it'd be even less feasible moving the equipment for a full laboratory to Mars than it would be on just sending some gravel home.

      What I don't understand is why there's any advantage in using Curiosity for the job. The big cost of a sample return mission is the propulsion equipment required to get to Mars, land safely, lift off, get to Earth,

    • by Iskender (1040286)

      Why would you want to carry out a sample return mission? There's not a single analysis you could want to do on a sample which couldn't be more cheaply done by sending the lab to mars. That's why we're sending one there.

      No, we're sending a rover there because we can't afford a sample return mission. Also a rover can study weather and other transient phenomena. A rover and a returned sample aren't nearly as similar as you're making them sound.

      When you say "not a single analysis" etc this implies you know all

      • Finally, we can still study our lunar samples fourty years after they were brought back. Even if we had the capability to send a world-class lab to Mars today, we cannot send a lab from decades into the future.

        In 40 years, we will certainly have technology that will allow for much better analysis. If we bring back samples, we will be able to analyze them with whatever new tools and sensors are invented decades after the mission. It's definitely much easier than continuously sending out probes with better hardware.

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      No you are wrong.
      First of all do you know for sure every test that you might want to do?
      No you don't because results from one test may lead to another. Not only that results from one test could lead to inventing a new test.
      I am all for robotic missions as better bang for the buck but the truth is that no robotic mission will be as good as sending scientists with a full lab to mars but that costs a whole lot of money so it is cheaper to return samples from Mars to Earth. If you can not afford that then rover

  • by blind biker (1066130) on Saturday March 03, 2012 @03:59AM (#39229929) Journal

    I'd wait till Curiosity lands without smashing itself into smithereens. That would be a great and somewhat unexpected success.

    http://youtu.be/xqqBy7C8gyU [youtu.be]

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Bomazi (1875554)

      Do you know that the MERs lowered the landing platform on a cable, followed by rocket engine ignition and a brief hover period ? Do you know that, for some reason, it worked, twice, with no broken or tangled cable ?

      See it here [youtube.com] (3:03 - 3:33).

      MSL uses the exact same technique, only it is simpler since after the cables are cut the rover is already on the ground. So the second part with the platform egress is not required. The only new elements are the detection of the touchdown and the fly away. The first has

  • This plan likely requires two additional launches.

    They must be targeted to land in places where the rover can get to them as they will not be mobile.

    If any one the the three messes up or lands somewhere we can't get to it we must build another lauch vehicle and wait for it to get to the surface of Mars

    Retrofiting the existing rover with a collection cup and then removing it and capturing the samples is probably far harder than just going to a place and snatching a sample from where you land. Remember, you

  • . . . like what happened with all those Moon rocks that they "can't find": http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16909592 [bbc.co.uk] .

    Towards the end of the Apollo 17 mission on 13 December 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt - the last men to have set foot on the Moon - picked up a rock. President Richard Nixon ordered that the brick-sized rock be broken up into fragments and sent to 135 foreign heads of state and the 50 US states. Each "goodwill Moon rock" was encased in a lucite ball and mounted on a wooden plaque with the recipient nations' flag attached. There were 370 pieces gathered for this purpose from the two missions. Two hundred and seventy were given to nations of the world and 100 to the 50 US states. But 184 of these are lost, stolen or unaccounted for - 160 around the world and 24 in the US.

    Pretty damn expensive novelty gifts. Couldn't we have given them "Pet Rocks http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_rock [wikipedia.org] instead?

    Oh, and maybe there is some kind of life in that Mars soil, that we don't understand. So bringing it back, and spreading it around the world would be an absolutely grand idea.

    • by khallow (566160)

      Oh, and maybe there is some kind of life in that Mars soil, that we don't understand. So bringing it back, and spreading it around the world would be an absolutely grand idea.

      Ok, if you say so. I was thinking that maybe that wouldn't be a good idea. But you clearly have thought this out. I guess that's because you already know that Earth has been showered with meteorites from Mars for billions of years.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    1) Curiosity (MSL) doesn't carry an appropriate sampling drill to get the samples. You want to collect at least 3 samples from each location, and they'd like them to be about 1 cm in diameter and 6-7 cm long. Multiple samples because you need to be able to test the first one, and if you find something, be able to test independent samples. And the samples need to be big enough to be be broken up for multiple labs to test. How many locations? maybe 10-15?

    2) Current technology does not allow "pinpoint" lan

    • by mcswell (1102107)

      "Current technology does not allow 'pinpoint' landings": Is this because it's difficult to find where you want to go as you're coming down, or because there's no way to maneuver during descent to land at a given target? If the former, could the radio signals from Curiosity serve as a target beacon?

  • The writer followed orders ... but who gave them? When writing about Mars, it is to be called "Mars" on first reference, and "the red planet" on second reference. That's an order no writer in my 6 decades of reading has ever broken. But who made the rule?
  • Round trip spaceflight is so much more complicated, big, and expensive than one way. To save money, just ask the Martians to send us some samples.
  • It may be too risky to bring samples directly back to Earth. There may be some microbes that Earth life has not had a chance to grow immunities too. Sure, the risk is quite small, but not zero. We don't know enough yet.

    We do have meteors from Mars, but they were baked in space radiation for a while before they landed.

    • by c6gunner (950153)

      It may be too risky to bring samples directly back to Earth. There may be some microbes that Earth life has not had a chance to grow immunities too. Sure, the risk is quite small, but not zero. We don't know enough yet.

      .....

      Hey, there's a non-zero chance that a toilet will fall out of the sky tomorrow and kill you. I suggest staying inside the house.

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