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NASA releases draft strategy for long-term robotic Mars exploration

MRO in orbit illustration
The draft strategy proposes a steady cadence of missions to do science and refresh infrastructure like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that provide communications and imagery. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — NASA has unveiled a draft strategy for long-term robotic exploration of Mars that emphasizes low-cost missions and potential commercial partnerships.

At a meeting of two committees of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board March 29, Eric Ianson, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, outlined a plan for a steady cadence of missions after Mars Sample Return that would advance science and refresh the infrastructure needed to support other missions.

“We wanted to look two decades into the future as far as what are the things that we can do to create equally dramatic and profound science” as Mars Sample Return, he said. “What we’re proposing to do here is to do it at lower cost and a higher cadence of missions.”

That strategy, called “Exploring Mars Together” by NASA, is intended to create what Ianson called a “sustainable” series of missions to Mars after the remaining elements of Mars Sample Return, the NASA-led Sample Retrieval Lander and European-led Earth Return Orbiter, launch in the late 2020s. NASA currently has no other robotic Mars missions in development other than ESCAPADE, a smallsat mission scheduled to launch in late 2024.

“Historically we’ve had peaks and valleys in the Mars program. When we talk about sustainable, it’s something that can be constant throughout,” he said. “We want to try and maintain missions on a regular cadence.”

That means launching relatively low-cost missions during every opportunity, which opens about once every two years. An “aspirational” timeline Ianson showed at the meeting had the first such mission launching in the early 2030s, moving into that regular cadence by the middle of the decade.

Those low-cost missions would come in between $100 million and $300 million each, he projected, with the option to fly a single mission costing $300 million or multiple smaller missions with the same total cost. “It provides a good opportunity for the proposing community to get really creative,” he said. Those competitively selected missions, he suggested, could draw on experience from commercial partnerships such as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program or commercial cargo and crew development.

That regular series of smaller missions would be supplemented by medium-class missions similar in size to the New Frontiers line of planetary science missions. An example of such a mission would be Mars Life Explorer, a lander focused on astrobiology that was recommended by last year’s planetary science decadal survey. There would also be smaller payloads that could fly as missions of opportunity on international or commercial missions.

Those missions would support three broad science themes. One would be continued search for signs of life, such as biosignatures and other evidence of habitability. A second would inform future human missions to Mars, including analysis of ice deposits or characterizing potential health hazards. A third would study other aspects of a “dynamic Mars” such as geology and climate.

Another element of the strategy is to strength an aging infrastructure of orbiters that provide communications and imagery. “In particular, we are quite concerned about our Mars relay network,” he said, the set of science orbiters also tasked with relaying communications from spacecraft on the surface. The notional timeline he presented included a spacecraft with a high-resolution camera and relay payload launching in the early 2030s.

That infrastructure work could provide opportunities for commercial partnerships, he suggested. “That’s one of the things that we’re going to explore: how do we find these win-win solutions where we can get science but it’s also benefiting the things that they’re looking to do,” he said of such partnerships. “There is no shortage of companies that have interest. The real question is, do they have the capability to be able to do that job?”

There are no specific budget numbers tied to the plan beyond the figures given for low-cost missions. Ianson said the draft plan is not reflected in NASA’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, which includes a line for “Mars Future Missions” but is devoted to development of a facility for hosting Mars samples and NASA’s support for ESA’s ExoMars mission. The agency will be looking for feedback on the plan from the science community, such as at an upcoming meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, to refine the strategy.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...