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Mars rover faces contamination issues

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Managers for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory must resolve three serious issues before the rover can launch this autumn, according to a NASA Inspector General report released on Wednesday. The report states that the $2.5 billion rover’s rock and soil sample gathering system has potential contamination issues caused by oil leftover from the manufacturing of the system’s drill bits, and that two suites of software still have problems — one for the rover’s operation and navigation, and another that controls the way the rover recovers from temporary failures and faults. Furthermore, the report notes concerns with the way that the rover’s plutonium-238 power supply has degraded in the two years since the rover’s launch was delayed from 2009 to the current window, between October and December of this year.

Now dubbed “Curiosity”, the rover is designed to explore the potential habitability of Mars’ ancient, watery environment — and oily contamination could jeopardize the rover’s ability to test for organic molecules. From the start, its design carried major challenges: the rover is four times as heavy as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers; it will descend using an entirely new “sky crane” technology; and it has an interdependent suite of 10 science instruments. But its budget has ballooned again and again, most drastically when its launch was delayed.

The audit also criticized managers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California for their handling of risks in the project. The report states that of 983 potential red flags raised by engineers in June 2010, 71 had not been assessed for their potential impact on the project.

The report comes as scientists are deliberating which of four landing sites will be best for the rover. Scientists met for a fifth and final workshop last month to debate the pros and cons of each. Science chief Ed Weiler is expected to choose the target site towards the end of this month.

The report says that Weiler concurs with the audit and expects the remaining issues to be resolved in time and within the budget’s margin. But, almost as an afterthought, the report mentions a recent incident that highlights just how chaotic a project of this complexity can be. On May 20, a crane operator pulled the rover’s backshell — which will protect the rover during its entry into the Martian atmosphere — off the ground while it was still attached to a heavy cart. Witnesses did not hear any “pops and creaks”, and the contractor says the backshell has not been damaged.

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