Foust Forward | Maintaining Mars madness

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Compared to 2020, this will be a quiet year for launching Mars missions. The last time the once-every-26-months Mars launch window opened, NASA launched the Perseverance rover, China its Tianwen-1 mission and the United Arab Emirates the Hope orbiter. When the next window opens this fall, the only mission scheduled to launch is Europe’s ExoMars, and that mission was postponed from 2020 because of technical problems and the pandemic.

At Mars itself, though, this year will be busy. The three missions launched in 2020 are all active on and around the red planet, including Perseverance, which is preparing to head towards the remnants of an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater, collecting samples along the way.

NASA and the European Space Agency are still working to better define the two later missions that will bring those samples back, with a NASA review of those plans pushed back to the spring, officials said at a meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) advisory committee in early February. Both the NASA-led lander and ESA-led orbiter are supposed to launch in 2026, although an independent review in late 2020 concluded those missions would likely slip to 2028.

Mars Sample Return dominates the agency’s Mars plans for the rest of the decade. NASA’s only other large mission in progress is the International Mars Ice Mapper, or I-MIM, an orbiter equipped with a radar mapper to look for subsurface ice deposits that could support later human missions. I-MIM, which includes contributions from Canada, Italy and Japan, had been scheduled to launch in 2026, but officials at the MEPAG meeting said it will now fly no earlier than 2028.

That’s putting pressure on scientists to get the most of the existing spacecraft on and orbiting Mars, some of which are quite old. Mars Odyssey has been orbiting Mars since 2001, and NASA hopes to get another five years out of the spacecraft. Two other orbiters, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and MAVEN, launched in 2005 and 2013, respectively, are expected to work through the end of the decade.

Those missions are feeling squeezed by proposed flat budgets. “It takes more work for an aging spacecraft and a legacy ground data system to keep up with new requirements,” said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist, at the MEPAG meeting, citing revised cybersecurity rules and science data formats. That reduces the funding available to support science by those missions.

The Mars science community is looking to the upcoming planetary science decadal survey for guidance on future missions. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at other recent meetings that she expects to get the final report in late March or early April, with a public release likely in mid-April.

The previous planetary science decadal picked as its top-priority large mission a sample caching rover that became Perseverance. It’s unlikely a Mars mission will come out on top this time, so scientists are looking at lower-cost options.

That includes lander missions that could be relatively inexpensive. A report presented at the MEPAG meeting found that advances in technology, along with low-cost launch services, made feasible a line of Mars missions costing a couple hundred million dollars a year, similar to what NASA is currently spending on the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

“These missions would be a component of the Mars program, but not the sole program,” said Bethany Ehlmann of Caltech, one of the leaders of that study.

As scientists await the decadal survey, they’re hoping to keep the current Mars missions running for years to come — all but InSight, the lander whose solar panels are increasingly covered with dust, reducing their power. Bruce Banerdt, the lander’s principal investigator, said at MEPAG he expects those power levels to drop below what’s needed to keep the lander alive by the end of the year.

He added the mission had submitted a proposal to NASA should InSight somehow manage to keep operating beyond the end of 2022. “But we’re not betting our mortgage on it.”


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the February 2022 issue.