Mars on the Cheap? New ways to probe the Red Planet

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BOULDER, Colorado — Mars scientists and technologists are blueprinting inexpensive and novel ways to deepen the investigation of the multifaceted planet. Be it via economical orbiters and landers or souped-up penetrators and robotic aerial devices, scientists say it’s time to script new ways to gather more data from various places on that far-flung world. 

Ways to plumb the depths of the planet’s enormous Valles Marineris canyon system, dive into caves, and provide close-up inspections of the Martian polar caps were presented at a Low-Cost Science Mission Concepts for Mars Exploration workshop, held March 29-31 in Pasadena, California. 

The gathering showed that there is top-notch Mars science to be done at a low cost, said Bethany Ehlmann, a professor of planetary science at Caltech. “It’s an exciting time to be a Mars scientist. We are at a space exploration inflection point in which lowering launch costs, increasing availability of commercial hardware, and a growing number of space companies interested in landing on the moon and Mars,” she told SpaceNews. 

Participating in the low-cost Mars exploration workshop was Steve Bailey, chief engineer of Redwire Space and a Mars exploration veteran dating back to NASA’s 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission. More recently, he was spacecraft design lead for NASA’s 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission and played a role in the UAE’s 2020 Mars Mission. Both orbiters are still circuiting the Red Planet.

Bailey has also seen failure. “I am five for seven with Mars exploration missions,” he said, recounting NASA’s back-to-back failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. He sees those setbacks as the greatest teaching moments of his career.

“We are seeing commercial microelectronics reach ever-higher levels of integration, as system-on-chip and system-on-module packages enable astonishing density of functions, capabilities, and performance,” Bailey said. 

Most of these packages are not suitable for spaceflight, but, with proper testing, ruggedization, and radiation-effects mitigations, some are, Bailey said. More importantly, the commercial design strategies and integration techniques are certainly applicable to custom space electronics, he added.

Bailey said one obvious way to reduce costs is to reduce the number of components by integration, the consolidation of functionality, and the ability to use a single device for multiple purposes (e.g., science, navigation, instrumentation, communication, command, data, etc.). “We take these things for granted in our smartphones, and Redwire Space is actively changing the way we all think about what to expect from space flight systems.”

Former NASA Ames Research Center director G. Scott Hubbard helped bring the agency’s Mars program back from the brink following its 1999 failures, serving from 2000 to 2001 as the first Mars Program Director, aka “NASA’s Mars Czar.”  Now an adjunct professor at Stanford University,  Hubbard said there are important Mars science questions that can be addressed by small missions.

NASA is trying to define a comprehensive Mars Exploration Program, Hubbard says, that includes elements that might accompany, precede or succeed NASA’s Mars Sample Return effort, now projected to transport back to Earth a collection of Red Planet materials in 2033. 

Hubbard says that the just-held workshop “is a further step in the direction of digging deeper” to see what might be in the $100-300 million cost range, including launch or rideshare arrangements. He highlighted a recent Caltech Keck Institute for Space Studies report that concluded costs could be substantially reduced through proper technology and novel partnerships, especially with emerging entrepreneurs.

“So, is there a pony in the barn? My answer is yes…significant science can fit into that cost box,” he said.

Meanwhile, NASA and the Mars community are awaiting the upcoming release of the planetary science decadal survey. The National Academies-led report outlines scientific priorities for the decade ahead and makes recommendations on how to pursue them. The decadal is expected to be made public this month.