by Bruce Moomaw Cameron Park - June 5, 2000 - In earlier articles, I confidently predicted that the next U.S. Mars lander would be a full-fledged soft lander -- which (like the Mars Polar Lander) would use a complex radar system and throttleable rocket engines to lower itself to a gentle touchdown -- rather than another Pathfinder.
I had two reasons. First, the Pathfinder system is a good deal heavier, due to its big and rather thick crash airbags -- so that it has to be launched on a full-scale Delta 2 booster, rather than the smaller and cheaper "Medlite" Delta used by the Polar Lander (and its cancelled 2001 twin).
But NASA has decided to absorb this cost increase, since its Mars program has now been stretched out over a much longer schedule. Both of the possible 2003 missions (and the 2001 Mars Surveyor Orbiter) are all scheduled for full-scale Delta 2s.
Second, when the U.S. finally does launch an unmanned Mars sample-return vehicle, it will certainly have to be a full-fledged soft lander, equipped with an automatic obstacle-avoidance system (using scanning laser radar and/or a descent TV camera) to minimize landing risks.
But such a system will probably have to be tested under Martian conditions first, using a smaller and cheaper soft lander, before we commit something as expensive as a Mars sample-return mission to it. I remain convinced that this will be done at some point.
In case the Mars Mobile Lander isn't possible, though, NASA is also studying an alternative 2003 mission -- another Mars Surveyor orbiter spacecraft with a new set of instruments.
This spacecraft would probably be designed along the lines of the Mars Global Surveyor that is currently mapping Mars' surface with great success, although it might also be made lighter weight by incorporating some elements of the smaller Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft (which would have worked very well if its ground controllers hadn't flown it into the planet, and which will have a near-duplicate launched to Mars in 2001).
The instruments it would carry (although there's some uncertainty) might include the following:
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