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Science Panel Pushes for Mars Surface Network

A newly released review of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration plans urges the U.S. space agency to consider installing a network of science stations across Mars’ surface as soon as 2016 to monitor the seismology and atmosphere of the red planet.

The review, performed at NASA’s request by a National Academy of Sciences panel, is generally supportive of the agency’s 10-year plan for exploring Mars with orbiters and landers, but raises questions about NASA’s technology-development efforts and suggests a couple of longstanding goals of planetary scientists have been left out. Among them is a so-called Mars Long-Lived Lander Network, defined in the report as “a grid of science stations that will make coordinated measurements around Mars’ globe for at least 1 Martian year.”

Currently, NASA is reserving its 2016 launch opportunity for either a pair of medium-sized rovers or a single big rover called the Astrobiology Field Laboratory that would search for telltale signs of life. The report suggests NASA consider postponing the Astrobiology Field Laboratory mission until 2018 and launch the Mars Long-Lived Lander Network mission instead.

To take maximum advantage of these and other missions, the panel said, NASA must fortify its ability to analyze the data streaming in from Mars. NASA also must beef up its funding for development of enabling technologies, which the committee identified as a chronic problem area.

The 15-person ad hoc Mars Architecture Assessment Committee was created by the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board. The group’s nearly 50-page appraisal, dubbed “Assessment of NASA’s Mars Architecture 2007-2016,” was released July 6.

In a cover letter to Mary Cleave, NASA associate administrator for science, the committee said the agency’s future exploration plans as a whole are “not optimized,” and that more work is needed to shore up the architecture’s scientific impact. The letter was signed by Reta Beebe of New Mexico State University, who chaired the review committee.

NASA was advised to immediately initiate technology-development activities to support Mars missions in the 2013-2016 timeframe as well as support the Mars Sample Return mission as soon as possible thereafter.

A robotic sample return mission has the potential to yield samples uniquely capable of tackling a host of scientific objectives, the committee said . Still, there are issues of cost and technical readiness. That being the case, robotic return to Earth of Mars samples will fall beyond the horizon of the coming decade, the study group said.

In a nod to “the extraordinary resilience” of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers still at work on the red planet, the panel “strongly suggests that a prudent, risk-reduction strategy is to use their design as a basis” for a proposed pair of medium-sized rovers .

The so-called Mid Rovers would be dispatched to evaluate the geological context of specific sites and search for organic compounds at targets identified by prior missions. NASA’s goal is to deploy two such rovers for a cost approximately equal to that of the planned Mars Science Laboratory mission, which is priced at $1.5 billion and slated to launch in 2009.

Delaying the Astrobiology Field Laboratory until 2018, the panel said, would permit NASA to fully digest results from the Mars Science Laboratory and other prior missions.

An important component of NASA’s Mars architecture is the Mars Scout series of low-cost missions. The first of these is the Phoenix Mars lander now being readied for a 2007 launch . Balloons, airplanes and other Mars craft are being advocated under the Scout rubric.

Scouts are characterized as “wild cards” by the study group. These competitively selected missions have the potential to fill in needs. “However, it must be kept in mind that Scouts must be proposed as ‘complete missions’ and not as architectural elements.”

The committee said a strong robotic Mars exploration architecture would stand on its own scientific merits and also will contribute significantly to NASA’s plan to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars and beyond .

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said July 5 he was still reviewing the report but that he was glad to see that the committee had identified “no big gaping holes” in the agency’s Mars exploration strategy.

Brian Berger contributed to this story from Washington. Comments: