By ALICIA CHANG
AP Science Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- NASA is scrapping a controversial piece of hardware from its next-generation Mars rover that would have allowed the spacecraft to store rock fragments in a mini-basket for a future mission.
The decision to slash the storage bin from the Mars Science Laboratory's payload came as engineers raced to meet an October 2009 launch deadline on a project beset by escalating costs and technical challenges.
After consulting with independent scientists, NASA this week notified the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission, to fly the nuclear-powered mega-rover without the container because of its "low science value." Removing the already-built part also means engineers would not have to spend time testing it.
Project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology said the box would have taken time away from other instruments during the mission.
"The cache would have tied our hands to some extent," Grotzinger said. "Now it restores our freedom."
The Mars Science Lab is billed as the most advanced craft to roam the Martian plains. The size of a small sports utility vehicle, it will study whether the environment was habitable in Mars' early history and will carry high-tech instruments to analyze rocks and soil in greater detail than previous surface missions.
Over $1.5 billion has been spent so far to develop the supersized project, but the final price tag is expected to top $2 billion.
The storage box was controversial ever since it was added to the project last year long after the mission goals had been defined. Supporters said squirreling away interesting pebbles would help push along a much-desired future mission to bring rocks back to Earth.
Opponents felt the $2 million piece was wasteful, saying any gathered samples will likely degrade over time. They also argued there was no guarantee a future spacecraft would fly to the Mars Science Lab's landing site to collect the basket.
Former NASA space sciences chief Alan Stern, who backed the idea, was baffled by the decision.
"The Mars program is slowly committing suicide in front of our very eyes," said Stern, who resigned earlier this year. "The only concrete step toward a sample return has been tossed after it has already been built. How does that save money?"
Scientists opted to use the space formerly occupied by the storage box for a cleaning station for the spacecraft's instruments.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)