NASA's wild plan to bring Martian rocks to Earth

The Mars rover Curiosity team's new leader wants to use robots and a rocket in a three-step plan to deliver samples from Mars to Earth.

NASA Mars ashwin vasavada and rover

NASA has a wild idea for a mission that will require a robotic tag-team effort, a rocket lifting off from the surface of Mars and a spacecraft that will scoop up Martian rocks orbiting the Red Planet.

Ashwin Vasavada, the new project scientist for NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity project, said scientists are working on a plan to not just send a rover to study rocks on Mars. Vasavada and his team are working to bring some of those rocks back to Earth so geologists can study them here.

Getting those rocks from Mars to Earth won't be an easy task. Vasavada has a plan for that.

Vasavada, a planetary scientist, has been the deputy project scientist for NASA's Curiosity rover since 2004. On Monday, he took over as the project head, succeeding John Grotzinger, who had held the post for seven years. Grotzinger recently became chairman of Caltech's Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences but will remain a member of Curiosity's science team.

"In the future, we'll work to bring [Martian] rocks back to Earth," Vasavada told Computerworld. "I'm looking forward to that. Curiosity is about the most you can do sending tools to Mars. The next step will be to send rocks back to Earth."

To ferry Martian rocks back to Earth will take a multi-pronged plan that might play out over the better part of 10 years.

The next robotic rover is expected to be sent to Mars in 2020, Vasavada said. It is being designed to hunt for signs of past life, as well as to make oxygen and rocket fuel on the Red Planet.

However, it also is being designed to collect rocks and soil samples and store them in a cache. The rover will leave that cache behind as it moves on to conduct other scientific studies on Mars. After that, another NASA mission will send a rocket and a smaller rover to the surface of Mars. That rover will pick up the cache of samples and put them on the rocket, which will launch itself and place those samples in orbit around Mars.

To wrap up the effort, another spacecraft will be launched for Mars that will grab the samples in orbit and bring them back to Earth, where scientists can study them firsthand.

Vasavada said the project is intended to be completed before NASA is expected to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

"This might involve international partners -- a joint effort," he added. "If we continue to send more and more robotics missions to Mars, we'll send better technology. Right now, we're in a little bit of the dark ages, looking at flat monitors with 2D pictures because it's difficult to keep the technology we send into space current with the technology we have on Earth."

A software upgrade for Curiosity

Curiosity, the rover that's been working on Mars since 2012, is also about to get a software update. Vasavada said the upgrade, which will occur before the end of this month, will be the rover's fourth since it landed on Mars.

According to NASA, the files already have been uplinked to the rover and are sitting in its file system, waiting for the installation.

The new software adds protections against bugs identified in rover test beds on Earth. One improvement will enable the rover to take measurements at the same time that it's using its drill. That should better enable the rover to sense if it is slipping during a drilling operation.

The upgrade also will add a new traction-control drive mode for the rover's wheels, making its driving ability more efficient.

"We're not really nervous about this at all," Vasavada said. "It just means we have to not operate the rover scientifically for about a week to give the team time to load up the software and switch operations to the new version in a very careful way. All of those steps can take about a week on Mars."

On top of writing the code for this software upgrade, NASA engineers also have been working on a troubling issue with Curiosity's wheels. The rover's wheels, which largely are made of aluminum, have suffered punctures and tears caused by driving over small rocks that are sitting on solid rockbed.

"We had to slow down for a few months to try to figure out what is going on," Vasavada said. "We were getting more tears and punctures than we thought we'd see … We worked with geologists to figure out what rocks were causing the damage and we worked with engineers to figure out how the rover interacts with the rocks."

He explained that the way the rover drives, the back wheels were pushing the front wheels directly into sharp rocks instead of driving over them. Small, hard rocks the size of a man's fist sitting on bedrock, would push through the wheels instead of sinking into the solid ground.

"It was interesting engineering to figure that out," said Vasavada. "We're developing ways to drive differently to avoid that."

He added that engineers will likely take on the driving issue in a future software upgrade.

"Right now the damage isn't affecting the rover's ability to do its job," said Curiosity's team leader. "The holes in the aluminum are the size of a quarter in between the treads. As of now, they're not causing any mechanical issues, but if they were to keep occurring at the same rate, then we would have a problem before the mission's lifetime would end. But since we've figured it out, we think we can slow the rate of damage."

Curiosity, which has discovered evidence of ancient water on Mars, as well as traces of methane, was sent to the Red Planet to help scientists determine whether life, even in microbial form, ever existed there.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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