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Mars In The Early 21st Century

After manufacturing its own propellants using Mars' thin, carbon-dioxide atmosphere as feed stock, a small ascent vehicle lifts off from the surface to begin its journey home. This spacecraft is returning rock and soil samples that were collected and stored inside by two micro-rovers during a 500-day surface stay. Artwork by Pat Rawlings for NASA.
by Bruce Moomaw
Pasadena - Nov 6, 2000
NASA's Solar System exploration program is currently undergoing a period of crisis and drastic redesign, due both to the failures of last year's Mars probes and to very severe problems of project cost overruns and funding limitations. Its radically redesigned Mars program was unveiled on Oct. 26, and a similarly radical redesign in its Outer Planets exploration program will follow within the next two months.

For this reason, the latest meeting of NASA's Solar System Exploration Subcommittee -- the team of a dozen planetary scientists, chaired by the University of Arizona's Michael Drake, who provide it with advice on the proper scientific design of its planetary programs -- on Oct. 30 and 31 was even more important than usual.

This writer was there, and the SSES' reactions to NASA's latest news can be summed up very simply: the scientists were delighted with NASA's redesigned Mars program, and utterly horrified by its current plans for its Outer Planets program. In Part 1 of my report, I'll deal with Mars.

The biggest news about the new Mars program is that NASA has now promised a drastic increase in the program's funding, starting immediately in Fiscal Year 2001. For the next five years it will be funded at a rate of $450 million per year, an increase of $60 million over the previous plan. This will allow proper funding of some extremely important Mars program components which were seriously neglected before.

In particular, the previous plan included NO firmly assigned funding for the handling, biological quarantine, curation or scientific analysis of the first returned Martian surface samples, or for construction of biohazard labs to contain them!

Nor was there any specific money for scientific data analysis of other science data radioed back from the various Mars spacecraft. The assumption was that money for these vital functions would simply begin to "turn up" in NASA's budgets in the coming few years on an impromptu basis.

Now there's an explicit line item of $30 million per year over the next decade for them -- and this may yet be increased. (The SSES agreed that -- for obvious reasons -- continued adequate funding of these items is one of the future Mars program's top priorities.)

The program based on these new higher funding levels was generally described at NASA's Oct. 26 press conference, but the SSES meetings provided further details. It will continue to revolve around three general subjects: the search for evidence of past or present life, an attempt to understand the evolution of Mars' climate, and geological study of the planet.

However, the central emphasis of the program will be on discovering evidence for the evolution of life on Mars (or on understanding why this did not occur). After all, experiments which focus on that question will automatically tend to provide much information on the other two areas. And the general theme of the program will continue to center around "following the water": understanding how much water Mars still has, where it's located, how much it had earlier in its history, and how much of it was -- or is -- liquid.

The first mission is still the April 2001 "Mars Odyssey" orbiter based on the design of the late Mars Climate Orbiter (which was working very well until its controllers accidentally flew it into the planet).

It will survey Mars for 2 1/2 years, using a "THEMIS" multispectral IR mapper to map all of Mars' surface for important minerals (such as carbonates) at a resolution of only 300 meters (and also photograph the entire surface with 18-meter resolution), and a gamma-ray spectrometer to map the distribution of important surface elements and near-surface water ice with a fuzzier 100-km resolution.

This will be followed by the two June 2003 Mars rovers selected this summer (based on the existing "Athena" design), which will be landed using the Pathfinder airbag system and then spend three months crawling several kilometers across Mars' surface and analyzing rock and soil samples with five different experiments totalling 22 kg.

In earlier articles, I speculated that NASA's sudden decision to add the second $300 million rover by pulling the sum out of various other programs -- which came as a shock to the scientific community -- might have been a personal decision by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, given his enthusiasm for both Mars exploration and missions with a high PR factor.

At the SSES meeting, NASA space science chief Ed Weiler confirmed my guess: Goldin made the choice suddenly and impulsively on his own during a briefing by Mars Program Director Scott Hubbard describing the single rover mission that had been proposed.

However, the SSES members had no serious objection to this; the general feeling was that the rovers would produce a great deal of genuinely useful science, and that a second rover to examine a second site was probably justifiable despite its cost.

  • Continue to Part Two of this Report

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