Cost of Mars 2020 mission may rise by up to 15%

An artist’s conception of the Mars 2020 rover. Several of its instruments are costing more than expected.


THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS–It was largely buried in the detailed budget justification for 2020 that NASA released today, but it didn’t take long for eagle-eyed scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference here to dig it up: NASA’s next flagship mission, the $2.46 billion Mars 2020 rover, is following the pattern of its predecessors and seeing its cost rise due to technical issues. 

The mission’s cost will increase by no more than 15%, Lori Glaze, NASA’s acting director of planetary science, said at LPSC’s annual “NASA night” today. But that sizable sum—which could run to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the agency’s final calculations–will take money away from other projects, including small trims in currently operating Mars missions.  

The admission is a blow for NASA, which, although it originally allowed Mars 2020 to grow in scope and ambition earlier this decade, had been proud of it staying within spending limits the agency set in 2016.

There are small efficiencies to be gained internally in Mars 2020, Glaze says, which like its predecessor Curiosity, is being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Some work can be postponed, some timelines tightened; the end of the Opportunity rover, which expired late last year on Mars, will help. But largely it’s expected the costs will be borne by trims to the operations of existing Mars missions and funds the agency sets aside for future missions, including the return of the rock samples that Mars 2020 will collect. “We tried to spread it so no one is feeling all of the pain,” Glaze says.

Three primary instruments of Mars 2020 are the source of this cost growth. One is the vital, and complex, sample caching system (SCS) that it will use to collect and store samples for eventual return to Earth. Two new rover instruments that will be mounted on its robotic arm, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC), have also experienced technical setbacks, though the agency has not detailed these. All three instruments have been developed primarily by JPL.

Time is pressing for the rover. Mars 2020 is taking shape on the floor of JPL’s famed clean room, and instruments from team members outside JPL were set to begin arriving for integration earlier this year. The mission is due to launch in July 2020 and the agency has given no indication that this date could slip.

The Mars 2020 news comes after the agency’s science chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, announced on 5 March that, due to cost growth, he was cutting–or descoping, in NASA argot–a magnetometer instrument on its next flagship mission, the Europa Clipper, also developed by JPL. The Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) instrument had seen its projected budget triple, to $45.6 million, he wrote, and remaining technical risks could have caused its price tag continue to rise. “The level of cost growth on ICEMAG is not acceptable,” Zurbuchen wrote. “As a result, I decided to terminate the ICEMAG investigation.” The instrument will be replaced by a simpler model, with development led by researchers and engineers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

At NASA night, some scientists felt it unfair that ICEMAG was ended while the Mars 2020 instruments continued. But it’s not a fair comparison, Glaze says. Mars 2020 is so far along in its development that descoping an instrument would save barely any money. “There’s an enormous amount of hardware built,” she says. In contrast, the Clipper is still in formulation, with its launch now expected in 2023. Future flagship missions, and the powerful NASA centers that develop them, will need to fit within the budgets developed for them, she added. “They’ve got to take that seriously.”