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With luck an Athena class robotic rover will arrive safe and sound in its protective air bag in 2004.
In-Situ Experiments Could Be Delayed
by Bruce Moomaw Cameron Park - June 5, 2000 - The final experiment set for the 2001 Lander was "MIP", a set of devices to test the possibility that later ships blasting off from Mars' surface could very greatly lighten their launch weight by manufacturing the propellant they need to get back into space from Mars' native atmosphere, instead of having to carry it all the way from Earth.

If this technique works out, it would very greatly reduce the cost not only of manned Mars ships, but of unmanned Mars sample-return vehicles in the near future -- and so MIP seems to me a much higher-priority item than MARIE and MECA. But the first package of MIP sensors weighs 8.5 kg, which I think is too heavy to be carried on Athena.

I wonder, though, about a longer-shot possibility. According to the April 14 "Space.com", the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is still seriously considering developing a "black box" for later Mars soft landers -- a very lightweight and shockproof recorder and transmitter package that could survive a crash on Mars and later radio back the engineering data recorded during the landing attempt, allowing the detailed post-mortem that couldn't be done on the Polar Lander.

I wonder whether such a lightweight transmitter could be added to the 2003 Pathfinder Lander along with the package of MIP experiments, so that they could transmit back data to Earth separately after the Athena rover had left the lander.

This first set of MIP experiments -- which would do such things as test the ability to manufacture small amounts of liquid oxygen out of Mars' carbon-dioxide air, and test techniques to keep solar cells clean from airblown Mars dust -- mostly has a very low data transmission rate, and could make use of such a system. This, however, is very speculative on my part.

Indeed -- as I said -- outsiders currently know very little about NASA's plans. Separate teams at JPL and Lockheed Martin are currently doing feasibility studies of both the Mobile Lander and the 2003 Orbiter, and NASA will make the decision as to whether to fly one of them -- or neither -- in July.

In the meantime, SpaceDaily will continue to report on Mars developments with hopefully more advance information about the details of these two missions and the course that the U.S. Mars program will take after that.

  • Click For Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four
  • Mars at JPL


    The return of the beach ball
    NASA Takes Out Two Options On Mars 2003
    Washington - May 12, 2000 - In 2003, NASA may launch either a Mars scientific orbiter mission or a large scientific rover which will land using an airbag cocoon like that on the successful 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission. The two concepts were selected from dozens of options that had been under study. NASA will make a decision on the options, including whether or not to proceed to launch, in early July.

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