NASA Eyes New Mars Orbiter for 2022

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WASHINGTON — NASA will launch a new telecommunications orbiter to the red planet in 2022 to follow the sample-caching Mars 2020 rover, the agency’s new Mars czar said Feb. 24.

This Mars 2022 orbiter may use experimental technologies such as high-power solar-electric propulsion or an optical communications package that could greatly improve transmission speed and capacity over radio frequency systems, said Jim Watzin, NASA’s Mars exploration program director.

Jim Watzin
Jim Watzin, NASA’s Mars exploration program director. Credit: NASA

The 2022 probe, which is needed to upgrade NASA’s aging Mars telecommunications network, also will have a “robust” science component, Watzin said. The orbiter will carry remote sensing instruments of some kind, although there has apparently been no discussion yet about their specifications, Watzin told the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group during a meeting in Pasadena, California.

“We’ll commission science-analysis group activity in the next several weeks, in March, [to] look at the future for this mission [and] the remote sensing we need for an orbiter-type mission,” Watzin said.

The presentation ensured a splashy entrance onto the Mars community’s stage for Watzin, coming only about three months after he rejoined NASA in December to take over one of its most visible and vaunted programs.

The NASA-chartered MEPAG is a conduit through which scientists who specialize in Mars studies pass advice to NASA’s planetary science division, which manages the agency’s fleet of robotic solar-system explorers.

Watzin offered no further details about the planned Mars 2022 probe, which in some ways is at least conceptually similar to the canceled Mars Telecommunications Orbiter. That mission, scrapped in 2005 to clear room in NASA’s budget for other missions, would have launched in 2009.

Currently, NASA leans heavily on the 13-year-old Mars Odyssey orbiter to relay data collected by the landers and rovers on Mars to Earth. There is real concern that the aging spacecraft might fail, Fuk Li, Director of the Mars Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told MEPAG after Watzin spoke.

One of Odyssey’s four reaction wheels — used to keep the spacecraft properly oriented — failed in 2012, and ever since, the craft has made do with three. The Mars Atmospheric Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, orbiter that arrived in martian orbit in September to study the planet’s upper atmosphere could serve as a backup communications relay in a pinch, but NASA would prefer not to take that route.

“We never wanted to use MAVEN for relay operations unless there was a sudden emergency,” Li said. However, “we [will] probably have to invoke the capability that MAVEN has” if older Mars satellites such as Odyssey fail.