Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Nature on What's Next For Mars

Nature's (one of the two leading science journals in English) lead editorial this week was on future Mars exploration. Some highlights:

"Future missions to the red planet require coordination — and a keen eye on costs.

"What this [past] huge investment [in one of a kind missions] has not produced, however, is the long-term infrastructure and reusable technology that would make future missions more affordable. To take one example: the most difficult part of any mission to the Martian surface is landing, yet every such mission to date has used technology tailored from scratch. There are currently no plans to reuse the rocket landing system painstakingly developed for Phoenix mission, nor the air bags of the rover missions, nor even the ambitious 'sky crane' system that will supposedly lower MSL to the surface from a kind of rocket-powered hovercraft.

"This constant reinvention is an indulgence that planetary exploration programmes can no longer afford... Rather than developing a new parachute-braking system, for example, the ExoMars rover being planned by the European Space Agency (ESA) could commit to using the air-bag technology deployed by NASA's rovers, and use as many of the other components from those missions as possible.

"Meanwhile, the most effective way to improve the returns on Mars exploration would be better cost discipline... Cancelling, or radically downscaling, overbudget missions such as MSL would set science back in the short term... But the only way to make Mars exploration a more regular affair is to stop the missions from costing too much. Eventually, a virtuous circle could be established: cheaper missions would mean more of them, which would mean less pressure to overload each one, in turn keeping the costs down."

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