Friday, May 25, 2012

Planning the Next Steps to Mars

At the moment, I’m on vacation.  This means that I work only a couple of hours a day ( :> ), and I can’t listen in on major meetings that involve the future of planetary exploration.  The latter is a shame (well actually not, I’m having a good time) because a major review meeting is occurring this week to review NASA’s plans for astrobiology and planetary exploration (which frequently overlap).  The meeting is the first of the National Research Council’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) (for those of you who track review and advisory committees, CAPS merges two previous committees including the COMPLEX committee).  

Before I go into the news from the CAPS meeting, let me quickly update the status on ExoMars.  The European Space Agency (ESA) held a meeting to review its commitment to the project, which is still 350M Euros short on funding commitments.  Rather than make a decision now, ESA’s managers delayed the decision until later in June to allow time to develop funding solutions.  (See this Space Newsarticle.)

Three  good reports on of the meeting provide recaps of the key points relating to future planetary, and especially Mars exploration.  The first article on Space Policy Online provides information on the policy deliberations behind the cuts that NASA’s planetary exploration program faces this year.  I won’t try to summarize it here because the nuances count, but if you are interested in policy issues relating to planetary exploration, I encourage you to read the full article.  One key piece of information that I’ve not highlighted in my posts but highlighted in this article is that current U.S. law will require cuts of 7-8% in the budgets of federal agencies next January unless Congress and the President approve equivalent targeted dollar cuts.   As a result, the budget picture for planetary science today may be a high point. 

More interesting (to me at least) is a post at The Great Beyond blog (publishers of the journal Nature among others) giving an early look at the options being considered by the NASA study group planning a new robotic and human roadmap for exploring Mars.  The apex goal identified by the group is to have a human mission orbit Mars in 2033 and return samples collected by robotic missions on the surface. 

For missions between 2018 and 2033, the group has identified three potential roadmaps, one of which will presumably be the focus of its ultimate recommendation this August:

  • Implement the sample caching rover mission that had been planned as a joint mission with ESA for 2018.  This option would be most faithful to the goals outlined by the Decadal Survey to begin implementation of the three mission sequence to gather, send to Mars orbit, and then retrieve and deliver to Earth samples from the surface of Mars.
  • Expand our exploration of key sites that may have harbored life or conditions for life with surface missions to as many as three sites.  The most promising of these sites or the site to be explored by the Curiosity rover starting next summer presumably would be the site from which samples would eventually be returned
  • Drop sample return as a goal and instead implement a series of missions to explore Mars in general including the atmosphere and interior.

The roadmap team is also leaving open the possibility that the Curiosity rover in route to Mars will make a stunning discovery that will require revision of the roadmap.
The final roadmap proposal is expected to be delivered to NASA later this summer.

A second article on reports on the thoughts of Steven Squyres, Principal Investigator for the MER Spirit and Opportunity rovers currently on Mars and chairman for the recently completed Decadal Survey.  He gave his personal opinion on which roadmap options would fulfill the goals of the Decadal Survey.  Squyres said that a communications orbiter at Mars to support rovers to collect samples would support the goals of the Survey recommendations.  An orbiter focused on science or a lander that doesn’t lead to sample return would not meet the recommendations.  Interestingly, he said that a roadmap that first flew a Mars communications orbiter, then a mission to Europa, followed by Mars sample return missions would also fulfill the recommendations. 

Editorial Thoughts: I won’t dwell on the budget picture here except to say that US budget politics are a mess.  The ultimate planetary science budget may depend on how the election turns out this Fall.

I’m reluctant to speculate too much on the possible Mars pathways since all I have is a summary of the presentation and not the presentation itself, which may have also been kept vague at this point.  The first option, based on Decadal Survey estimates and planning for the joint mission with ESA, likely would cost more than $2B.  This requires substantial funding be available toward the end of the decade, which is at least two Presidents and several Congresses away.

The pathway that explores multiple sites could have several implementations.  The surface missions could be fixed landers like the Phoenix lander or smaller rovers that might be closer to the Opportunity rover than to the Curiosity rover on its way to Mars or the caching rover.

The last option, to explore Mars as a planetary system, could have a range of orbiters or landed missions like the proposed Insight geophysical station. 

Based on past prioritization of goals, the order of the options listed above may represent the ranking the scientific community would give to these options.  However, this order may also reflect the ranking by cost, or at least for need for peak funding.  (Most of the costs of missions usually occur in the last two years before launch, requiring a large peak funding rate in those years.)  If budgets become tighter than currently planned, then the second two options may better fit actual funding resources.

Squyres comments on flying a mission to Europa before starting the sequence of missions to return samples from Mars is intriguing…

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