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NASA Mars programme retains focus on sample return


After months of effort, NASA on Tuesday released the results of a study that laid out options for the Mars programme — a re-planning process that was kicked off in the wake of the agency’s devastating pull-out of the joint 2016/2018 ExoMars missions with the European Space Agency, and one that was made more urgent by the crummy budget that the planetary sciences division was handed in February.

The study laid out options, not recommendations, so there was no immediate resolution for what to do in 2018, the earliest chance for a strategic Mars launch, when the agency says it might have available at most $800 million. (There will also be smaller NASA Mars missions launched in 2013 and 2016.) Study lead Orlando Figueroa, a former NASA official at Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, pointed out the obvious options at hand, and the pros and cons for each. A science orbiter might be affordable in 2018, but it wouldn’t take full advantage of the excellent orbital mechanics that year between Earth and Mars that would allow NASA to throw more mass at the martian surface. Waiting a few years to put a rover on the ground in 2020 is the other main option, and that would maintain the landing capabilities that NASA has nurtured over the past decade. However, that option would be somewhat risky if communications infrastructure wasn’t also somehow refreshed. NASA science chief John Grunsfeld says the decision for which of these options to pursue would be revealed at the time of the president’s budget request in February 2013.

Exploring options for near-term missions was only one of the group’s tasks — it was also supposed to map out a set of pathways for the Mars programme to follow to the 2030 timeframe. Overall, the presented options hew largely to the decadal survey’s emphasis on a Mars Sample Return — though it lays out a few different ways of achieving that. Here are three key points that I took away from the study.

* The study group tried to find overlap with the human exploration programme. One option Figueroa talked about was for astronauts to intercept the Mars sample return module somewhere in the Earth-Moon neighborhood. Why would that be useful? Figueroa says the astronauts could help with the inspection, cleaning and isolation of the samples, which would have to be quarantined on Earth. It would also allow the samples to ride back to Earth with the astronauts in Orion; that way the sample return module could be smaller and cheaper. “Sample return represents the best opportunity to find synergies between the two programmes,” says Grunsfeld. “There’s a parallelism of ideas there.”

* The study emphasized the search for evidence of past life as the core strategy of the Mars programme. Figueroa noted that, while some are excited about searching for extant life in watery or icy environments near the surface, the science is still immature and would be better explored in one-off missions such as Discovery or New Frontiers. Moreover, Grunsfeld points out that any life detection mission would need to adhere to strict planetary protection standards. “We need to work a lot harder to not contaminate Mars with microbial life we’ve brought with us.” Former Mars czar Scott Hubbard, now a professor of aeronautics at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California, concurs. “The scientific risk of not finding extant life makes an exploratory mission through Discovery or New Frontiers a more logical first step prior to inserting this into the strategic programme,” he says.

* While the overall focus was on sample return, the team presented several pathways for doing it. Whereas the decadal survey settled on an architecture that would involve three launches, Figueroa points out that two and one-launch configurations could actually result in lower costs overall. But such an arrangement would require higher peak funding in certain years — and also would put all the eggs in one basket (or two), thereby increasing the risk. Hubbard says he still favours the three-launch architecture.


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