NASA releases proposed goals for 2020 Mars rover mission

July 9, 2013

Here’s what we’re reading/watching Tuesday:

1) NASA’s next Mars rover mission is scheduled for 2020. That mission should search for signs of past life on the Red Planet as well as collect and store core samples that could potentially be returned to Earth on a future mission. The 2020 mission should also demonstrate technology that could be incorporated into manned missions to Mars down the road. That’s all according to the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team, which completed and submitted its final report to NASA, recommending scientific goals for the 2020 rover mission to Mars. The space agency released the 154-page report to the public Tuesday.


Plans for the 2020 mission plan on incorporating the structure of the Mars rover Curiosity, capitalizing on the successful design and engineering of that mission. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Science Definition Team, composed of 19 engineers and scientists from universities and research organizations, started work in January to propose goals for the 2020 Mars mission. The proposed mission goals, which suggest the agency borrow heavily from the Curiosity rover designs, could prove to be, to borrow a phrase, “one giant leap” toward meeting President Obama’s goal of sending humans to Mars roughly a decade after the 2020 mission.

“The proposed Mars 2020 rover mission is the best, most scientifically impactful next step in exploring the closest world at which humanity might answer the question: Has there been life elsewhere in the solar system,” the report reads. But the search for signs of past life during the 2020 mission should not be considered a search for little green men, or their skeletons. Instead, this would be a search for evidence of microbial life.

“The sort of evidence we’re looking for,” said Science Definition Team Member and Jet Propulsion Laboratory Astrobiologist Abigail Allwood in a video produced by JPL, “would be signatures of microbial life. So, not realistically looking for dinosaur bones and that kind of thing. If life ever existed on Mars, we expect it to have been microbial – microorganisms.”

The report’s conclusions for how the mission should proceed are merely a part of the process in establishing the final mission goals.

“Crafting the science and exploration goals is a crucial milestone in preparing for our next major Mars mission,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington via a release Tuesday. “The objectives determined by NASA with the input from this team will become the basis later this year for soliciting proposals to provide instruments to be part of the science payload on this exciting step in Mars exploration.”

Along with the release, NASA published a video outlining the core recommendations:

(NASA via Space.com)

2) Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency, was in Washington, D.C. Monday. Le Gall met Monday morning with his U.S. counterpart, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Both meetings,” said Le Gall during a phone conversation Monday, “went very well.”

CNES has a scheduled ATV mission in 2014, which Le Gall said he invited Bolden to attend. After the ATV mission, said Le Gall, CNES will work with NASA on the Orion capsule. Le Gall emphasized the “strong” and “longstanding cooperation” with the United States, and France’s “strong tradition to develop launch vehicles.” Le Gall, who has a doctorate in engineering from Paris-Sud University and served as chairman and CEO of Arianespace among other notable positions, was appointed president of CNES in April.

3) Harvard Professors Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with lawmakers and address American competitiveness, with another meeting scheduled on Wednesday. The two professors are co-chairs of the U.S. Competitiveness Project. The meetings are meant to give the professors an opportunity to go through, among other topics, their eight-step policy plan they have insisted Congress and the president must undertake immediately in order to restore the nation’s competitive edge. The plan was outlined in The Economist’s “World in 2013″ magazine. The recommendations are a collection of actions that have long been on Washington’s to-do list, including simplifying the corporate tax code and regulation and agreeing on a framework to develop shale gas and oil, and creating a sustainable federal budget. They also call on leaders to create and enact a multi-year infrastructure-improvement program, address what they call “trade distortions” (differences in intellectual property rights and trade deficits”).

4) Is this the right definition of “design”?

“A specification of an object, manifested by some agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to some constraints.”

The definition appears in a report titled “A Proposal for a Formal Definition of the Design Concept,” by Paul Ralph and Yair Wand of the Sauder School of BUsiness at the University of British Columbia. In his analysis of the paper, John Pavlus writes for Fast Company:

“But are the edges of the definition truly sharp? Does fashion design, which often only has “goals” in the aesthetic sense, qualify? What about cooking? Does a chef “design” a new dish? Is a recipe a “design,” or something else? Rigorously defining “design” starts to seem like measuring a coastline: The “true” edge always recedes, infinitely, no matter what scale you try to measure it at.”

What do you think of Ralph and Wand’s definition of “design”? Can the word be defined? Let us know in the comments.

5) And, if you think the Delorean is the greatest car ever, you will love “The Delorean Outfit” — a video tribute by Kassim Norris to the car “Back to the Future” helped turn into an icon. (via Devour)

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Vivek Wadhwa · July 9, 2013