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Mars Program Planning Group Identifies Options for Future Mars Exploration--update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Sep-2012
Updated: 25-Sep-2012 11:02 PM

NASA has posted the summary of the Mars Program Planning Group's (MPPG's) report.  More details were provided to the National Research Council's (NRC's) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) today at its meeting in Irvine, CA and at a NASA media teleconference this afternoon.

The summary turns out to be the briefing slides MPPG head Orlando Figueroa presented to CAPS.  NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) head John Grunsfeld said during the media teleconference that it is "not a plan," but options and strategies.  The full report will be ready in mid-late October, Grunsfeld added.

Figueroa and his team were tasked with developing "foundations for a program-level architecture" for NASA's exploration of Mars combining the goals of the planetary science community as expressed in last year's NRC Decadal Survey for planetary science and those of the human spaceflight side of NASA that is focused on meeting President Obama's goal of sending astronauts to orbit Mars in the 2030s.

The science and human spaceflight parts of NASA historically view each other with suspicion.  During a question and answer session with the CAPS committee, Figueroa likened the situation to the elephant and the mouse, with each wary of the other.

The bottom line, however, is that today NASA's human spaceflight program is on one track and the robotic Mars exploration program is on another despite the agency's stated intentions to get the two to work more closely together.   Human spaceflight is focused on operating and utilizing the International Space Station until 2020 and perhaps until 2028 and sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  The robotic Mars exploration program is focused on operating four Mars probes in orbit around or on the surface of Mars (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Opportunity and Curiosity), and launching another mission (MAVEN) next year and still another (Insight) in 2016.  The future of the robotic Mars program after that is uncertain following budget cuts that forced NASA to withdraw from cooperative missions with Europe in 2016 and 2018.  Those cuts prompted the creation of Figueroa's MPPG.

As noted, Figueroa's team was tasked with developing options that are responsive to the scientific goals expressed in the 2011 NRC planetary science Decadal Survey as well as the President's directive to send people to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  The Decadal Survey's top priority for large "flagship" missions was returning a sample from Mars.    MPPG concluded that a Mars sample return mission not only is a top science priority, but also a good opportunity to blend the science and human spaceflight parts of NASA.  For example, astronauts could collect a sample enroute back to Earth from Mars and ensure that it is safe enough to be brought to the surface without fear of planetary contamination.  Where the astronauts would be when they capture the sample -- on the Intenational Space Station, on an asteroid rendezvous mission, in orbit around Mars, or somewhere else -- is not clear from the summary.  A CAPS member questioned the need for astronauts to get involved in a sample return mission at all.  Indeed, the Mars sample return campaign in the Decadal Survey does not mention astronaut involvement in the return process.

For the near-term (2018-2024), the MPPG report presents four options for Mars rovers and four options for Mars orbiters and spells out the pros and cons of each.   For the rovers, one obstacle is cost.   As Grunsfeld said at the media teleconference, the best NASA is hoping for is $700-800 million for a new Mars mission that could be launched in 2018, a particularly good time to launch a Mars mission based on planetary alignments (probes can be launched to Mars every 26 months, but some opportunities are better than others depending on the relative positions of the two planets).  That is not enough money to build any of the rovers, whose pricetags start at over $1 billion.  Thus, NASA will have to choose between an orbiter for launch in 2018, or skip 2018 and hope it can accumulate the necessary money to build and launch one of the rovers in 2020 or later.   A complex series of trade-offs is necessary to make the decision.

When asked when a decision will be made, Grunsfeld said that NASA is in the process of submitting its FY2014 budget request to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).   What direction NASA chooses and that wins White House approval will not be publicly known until the budget is submitted to Congress in February 2013, he said. 

NASA planetary science division director Jim Green, who was at the CAPS meeting today, stressed during a question and answer session there that OMB is not interested in expensive "flagship" missions right now.  He had stressed that point earlier in the CAPS meeting as well during a discussion of studies related to a possible mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  He tried to keep the members of the planetary science community who comprise CAPS mindful of budget realities in Washington saying that there are no funds for a Europa mission right now despite the enthusiasm with which the studies were received by the group.

At the end of today's media teleconference, Grunsfeld thanked Figueroa for his team's "heroic" effort in completing MPPG's work in just a few short months, but did not sound particularly optimistic about where it would lead.  Calling the MPPG "part of a process of developing a plan," it seemed as though uncertainty remains the watchword on NASA's future Mars exploration plans.




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