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NASA Seeks Input for Planning for New Mars Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2012
Updated: 13-Apr-2012 11:33 PM

Details remain scant, but NASA held a teleconference today to provide an update on the work of the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) headed by Orlando Figueroa.  The MPPG was created when NASA had to dramatically change its plans for future robotic Mars exploration because of budget constraints that forced it to pull out of a cooperative effort with the European Space Agency (ESA).

At today's media teleconference, John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and Doug McCuistion, head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, joined Figueroa in explaining the scope and timetable for the MPPG.   Figueroa said that he made a preliminary report to Grunsfeld a week and a half ago.  The next major step will be a workshop in June at the Lunar and Planetary Institute to obtain input from a broad cross section of the global science and technical community, which is encouraged to submit abstracts to bring forward ideas that "will inform a strategy for exploration within available resources, beginning as early as 2018," according to NASA's press release.   The final report from the MPPG is due to Grunsfeld in August.

The report is intended to provide options and pathways for the future of an integrated Mars exploration program that brings together the goals of SMD and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).   Grunsfeld, a former astronaut, emphasizes that President Obama directed NASA to send humans to the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s and robotic missions are needed to work in concert with NASA's human exploration office, along with NASA's technology office, to achieve that goal.

August is an interesting time for such a report to emerge.   NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) with its Curiosity rover is due to land at Gale Crater on Mars on August 6 EDT (August 5 PDT).   The mission involves a never-before-used landing system called a sky crane that adds another layer of risk to what is always a risky endeavor -- landing a spacecraft on Mars.  When the chair of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Space Studies Board asked a panel of NASA science officials last week "what keeps you awake at night," Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, replied the "seven minutes of terror from the top of the [Mars] atmosphere to landing."

Leonard David, reporting for Aerospace America, asked at today's teleconference what will happen to the MPPG results if the Curiosity landing fails.   Would congressional support for a new Mars mission dim if Curiosity -- a $2.5 billion mission -- crashes, he queried?   The NASA officials avoided a direct answer to the question, although Grunsfeld eventually responded by emphasizing that all such missions are very risky and there are "no guarantees," but he thinks interest in Mars will continue to be strong regardless.

In response to a question, McCuistion revealed that the money for a new Mars mission based on whatever comes out of the MPPG report is already in his budget, though all funding in the out-years is notional.    Grunsfeld has been quoted in other venues as saying the cost of the mission will be about $700 million and one question expected to arise in the planetary science community is whether those funds are best spent on a Mars mission.

The NRC issues "Decadal Surveys" for NASA's space and earth science disciplines every 10 years.  The most recent planetary science Decadal Survey was published last year.   Ordinarily, NRC Decadal Surveys are rigorously followed by NASA because they represent a consensus of the relevant science community and because Congress holds them in high esteem.

The first Decadal Survey for planetary exploration in 2003 dealt with Mars separately from the rest of the planetary exploration program.   This time, however, NASA directed the NRC to consider Mars as part of planetary exploration generally rather than as a special subset.  As the 2011 report Decadal Survey states, "Priorities for the Moon, Mars and other solar system bodies were treated in a unified manner with no pre-determined 'set-asides" for specific bodies.   This approach differs distinctly from the ground rules for the 2003 planetary science decadal survey, in which missions to Mars were prioritized separately."

With all of NASA's planetary exploration program under stress, questions are almost certain to arise about why the $700 million is already being allocated to Mars before a study has concluded that it can be wisely used to advance our understanding of Mars in accordance with the priorities laid out in the Decadal Survey.

At a meeting of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) in March, Cornell University's Steve Squyres, who chaired the planetary science Decadal Survey and is now chair of the NASA Advisory Council said that a new Mars mission would conform with the Decadal Survey only if it advanced the goal of returning a sample of Mars to Earth -- the 2011 Decadal Survey's top priority for large planetary science missions.  The two Mars missions with ESA that were cancelled in the FY2013 budget request were part of a series of missions to accomplish that goal.  ESA is now planning to proceed with the first of the two missions, ExoMars, with Russia instead of the United States.

The frequent reference to the need for NASA to develop an integrated approach for Mars exploration addressing the combined goals of SMD and HEOMD prompts a related question about why so little attention is being made to advancing a nearer-term goal expounded by the President -- sending astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025.    That also would require an integrated approach by SMD and HEOMD.  Some scientists insist that one requirement is to launch a spacecraft designed to search for candidate asteroids that cannot be observed from Earth.   A "Venus-trailing" spacecraft that could view a much larger part of the sky is needed for such observations, they argue.  Although it was considered in a different context, a 2009 NRC report on the potential threat to Earth from asteroids and comets ("Near Earth Objects") described such an asteroid-hunting mission as costing about $600 million.

The message of today's press conference was that NASA is looking for innovative ideas for robotic Mars exploration that fit into the agency's longer term goal of sending humans to Mars and its constrained budget.  Convincing the planetary science community and its supporters that another Mars mission is more important than other planetary exploration missions waiting their turn may be a challenging task, and whether it advances President Obama's goals for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit  -- which starts with a human mission to an asteroid, not to Mars -- is an open question.


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