NASA Set To Weigh Options for Future Mars Missions

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HOUSTON — NASA is poised to begin reviewing wide-ranging options offered by participants in a Mars exploration planning conference here June 12-14, with the goal of reviving a follow-on mission or missions to the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) program.

With MSL on track for an Aug. 6 touchdown in Gale Crater to search for places that could have hosted and preserved life, NASA is looking ahead to replace its canceled Mars sample-return initiative, part of a multiyear three-spacecraft project called ExoMars that was to be jointly conducted with the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA intends to pursue the program in partnership with Russia instead.

“We had our fingers burned a bit, but I say very sincerely that we really want to collaborate with NASA and Roscosmos,” Jorge Vago, ESA’s ExoMars project scientist, told participants at a three-day NASA-sponsored Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute here. “When this turn hit, we had already started to have trilateral talks among the three agencies and they were off to a good start. It is an unfortunate reality of the present budget situation that we had to interrupt this collaboration.”

NASA already intends to bypass a 2016 launch opportunity to Mars, a planetary window that opens every 26 months.

MPPG, which is headed by Orlando Figueroa, is developing a Mars exploration program that is expected to have about $700 million a year for robotic exploration of Mars.

Options for missions proposed for as early as 2018 include orbiters, landers, hoppers, wind-blown tumblers, aircraft, drills and even a low-budget sample return that skims through the martian sky collecting dust and atmospheric gas samples.

“The range of ideas here has been pretty exciting,” Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, told Space News. “Can some of this get folded in? The short answer is ‘yes,’ but how much and on what time scale?”

Scientists and engineers also proposed several instruments, including life-detection sensors, that could not only fulfill some objectives laid out in the National Research Council’s decadal survey for planetary science, a master blueprint that NASA has no intention of challenging, but also support eventual human missions to Mars.

“Without decadals you end up just with chaos,” McCuistion said. “Everybody’s mission is better than everybody else’s. You end up arguing about whose science is more important, whose mission is more important. Those are not really valuable arguments because it bogs you down.”

The latest survey, released last year, calls for a Mars sample-return mission, an architecture some scientists believe is no longer necessary to fulfilling one of the top goals of the report, namely determining if Mars has or ever had life.

“I would say that Mars sample return is deferred, not delayed,” McCuistion said.

One area NASA may be able to cut costs is on the ride to Mars. Several mission concepts proposed to use Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon rockets, which would cost far less than the $200 million-plus price tag on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 booster.

“Things that revolutionize the way we do exploration, whether it’s robotic exploration or human exploration, I welcome. It drives us all to be more imaginative and more efficient,” McCuistion said.

The agency also is looking at early use of its Space Launch System, a shuttle-derived, heavy-lift booster under development for future human deep-space travel.

With regard to new Mars missions, the biggest hurdle in NASA’s immediate future may be the coming presidential election.

“I think that Congress in many areas will probably not act on a 2013 budget until they understand what happens in the election cycle, so there’s a potential that we’re on a continuing resolution until after the election,” McCuistion said.

“The law says new starts are not allowed under continuing resolutions, so I can’t do a new start,” he added.

A report on the MPPG workshop was due to be delivered June 17 to NASA.

 

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