Curiosity’s Landing Kindles Hope for Revitalized Mars Exploration Program

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PASADENA, Calif. — Results from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, dispatched to look for places that could have supported life on the planet that most resembles Earth, are months and years away, but a key component of the $2.5 billion endeavor proved its worth and demonstrated its potential for future missions in just seven minutes.

That is how long it took for the 1-ton spacecraft, which on Aug. 6 wrapped up an eight-month journey by slamming into the martian atmosphere at more than 20,000 kilometers per hour, to fly itself through the skies and land about 6 kilometers away from one of the most interesting geological formations on the planet — a nearly 5-kilometer-high mountain of sediments rising from the floor of an ancient impact basin.

The precision landing culminated in what NASA, in a bid to lower expectations for the riskiest part of the flight, had called the “seven minutes of terror.” In reality, the elaborate landing system, which included a massive supersonic parachute and a rocket-powered crane that lowered the nuclear-powered rover to the ground on a tether, worked perfectly.

“I think what we have is a workhorse for the future,” Doug McCuistion, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, told Space News after the rover, nicknamed Curiosity, settled itself inside Gale Crater at 1:32 a.m. eastern time Aug. 6.

“The engineering impact of the mission is the ability to get a metric ton to the surface. The studies we’ve done over the years and that the current planning team [for future Mars exploration] is doing haven’t come up with missions in the robotic science community that really need more than this kind of mass delivery to the surface,” he said.

Specifics about how NASA may reuse the Mars Science Lab’s Sky Crane landing system may be in a report from a team formed in response to the U.S. decision to pull out of Europe’s ExoMars program, a two-mission campaign culminating in the collection of rock and soil samples for later return to Earth.

The Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), headed by former NASA Mars czar Orlando Figueroa, is evaluating options for missions that could fly in the 2018 and 2020 launch opportunities when Earth and Mars are favorably aligned. NASA has only one Mars mission planned beyond Mars Science Lab. An orbiter called Maven that is designed to study the planet’s atmosphere, is slated to launch in late 2013.

Despite funding constraints, NASA remains intent on pursuing the National Research Council’s highest priority for missions between 2013 and 2022, a Mars sample-return mission.

“The primary goal for Mars exploration is sample return,” said Michael Meyer, NASA’s lead scientist for the Mars exploration program. “I suspect there are other things that we may do on Mars, but if they don’t help sample return they may be viewed as a non-starter.”

Mars Society President Robert Zubrin said the Sky Crane’s success strengthens the case for Mars sample return.

“This landing system, as is, is sufficient for sample return,” Zubrin said in an Aug. 10 phone interview. “With 1-ton payloads on the martian surface, you can do Mars sample return.”

Though focused on science, the Mars exploration community is looking to incorporate technologies and experiments that support eventual human missions to Mars. Curiosity is supporting that effort as well. Its heatshield was about the diameter of NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule, currently under development to support a human mission to an asteroid in the mid-2020s. And while most of the 400-member Curiosity science team spent the week on instrument checkouts, Don Hassler, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., began the second phase of his radiation study.

The Radiation Assessment Detector, positioned inside the rover, collected data throughout the cruise to Mars in an attempt to determine how much and what kind of radiation future astronauts would face with similar shielding. The instrument was turned back on the day after landing to begin gathering information from the planet’s surface (see related story, above).

MPPG is due to deliver its report to NASA in mid-August. It is expected to be publicly released by the end of the month.

Scott Hubbard, the former NASA Ames Research Center director who ran NASA’s Mars program in 2000, said Curiosity’s flawless landing gives planetary scientists plenty of “ammunition to argue for restored funding so that there can be a next-decade Mars program.”

Planetary scientists have been up in arms since the White House proposed earlier this year to reduce NASA’s Mars exploration budget by 40 percent come 2013.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a House appropriator whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, predicted Aug. 6 that the mission’s success would “reinvigorate” congressional efforts to undo those cuts.

 

Dan Leone contributed to this story from Washington.

 

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