Yesterday, NASA announced a bold new plan of exploration for the coming decade on Mars. It’s exciting. I love plans that include a methodical exploration of other worlds that will help answer the bigger questions out there, like why Mars developed into such a different world than the other inner bodies. But looking a little closer at what few details the agency’s released, it looks less like a concrete plan with a goal and more of a bid to capitalize on Curiosity’s unexpected fame. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just sort of an odd thing.
In brief, the new Mars plan will see a series of smaller missions launch in the next eight years culminating in a flagship mission in 2020. In 2013, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter will reach the Red Planet. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – InSIGHT – mission will follow in 2016 and take the first look into Mars’ interior. NASA will also support the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars missions – it will provide the “Electra” telecommunication radios to its 2016 orbiter and an astrobiology instrument on its 2018 rover. The climax will be another science-heavy rover akin to Curiosity launched in 2020.
While all this is going on, NASA will continue to fund and support the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity in their ongoing surface exploration. In all, NASA will be working simultaneously on seven Martian missions.
“The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a press statement. “With this next mission, we’re ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s.” NASA says this plan fits within the five-year budget laid out in the president’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, especially since NASA frequently reuses existing technologies to keep mission costs down.
This zealous renewed commitment to Mars is based on Curiosity’s incredible success in its mission so far, and likely to the continuing positive public response as well. People have a tendency to anthropomorphize rovers. These robots have cute names, arms, faces, eyes, and, if you read the memoirs of the engineers who built them, individual personalities. With an attachment to a rover almost akin to the attachment people feel with astronauts, robotic exploration is starting to give a new meaning to the old maxim of “no Buck Rogers, no bucks.” It makes sense for NASA to give the people (taxpayers) what they like.
At this point, just a day after the announcement, there aren’t any concrete details on the the 2020 mission. But it sounds like it’s going to be a flagship mission directly descended from Curosity. And there’s a lot of buzz around the Internet that a sample return mission would be a great use for a new, big, sophisticated rover. It would. A sample return mission from Mars would be incredible. Studying Martian samples on Earth with state-of-the-art technology would be far better than studying them in situ with rovers whose science payload was frozen long before launch.
So, is any of this plan for Mars sounding familiar yet? It should.
In mid-2011, the National Research Council’s Committee on Planetary Science in cooperation with NASA outlined a series of planetary goals for the decade 2012 to 2023. The decadal survey presented a bold and methodical approach to Mars that took advantage of every launch window, which means a new missions once every 26 months or so.
There were five missions in this plan. Curiosity’s 2012 landing was the first step. The 2014 launch window would see an orbiter reach Mars with the sole (and wonderfully obscure) goal of measuring the escape rate of Mars’ remaining atmosphere – MAVEN. This data would help scientists reverse engineer the planet’s environment, figuring out when in Mars’ history the planet might have had a suitable environment to support life.
The 2016 and 2018 launch windows would see two joint missions between NASA and the ESA. In 2016, NASA would launch an ESA orbiter and an Entry, Descent, and Landing Module (EDM). The orbiter would add to the battalion studying Mars’ atmosphere while the EDM would use sensors to evaluate EDL performance and study the landing site. The 2018 window would have seen two rovers, one from NASA and one from ESA (using the EDM data, presumably), launched by NASA. Both rovers would carry different science payloads to the same site – ESA’s rover would use a drill and onboard instruments to run exobiology and geochemistry experiments while NASA’s would collect and store samples.
NASA’s 2018 rover was to be the start of the sample return mission. The first rover would collect samples, about the volume of a pen, and store them. A second lander carrying a ‘fetch’ rover would collect the samples and transfer them to an ascent vehicle that would launch the samples into Martian orbit. A third spacecraft would come and rendezvous with the orbiting samples and return them to Earth. This segmented approach was designed to bring a measure of redundancy into the delicate mission and also build in a “holding period” in case schedules slipped or funding became an issue.
But NASA abandoned this decadal plan earlier this year. The President’s 2013 budget forced the agency to make some choices, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) came out on top. JWST is behind schedule and has run over budget, so to keep the mission on track NASA took funding from other programs. The Mars exploration budget was hit hard, prompting the agency to withdraw from the ExoMars program. The sample return and all the sophisticated missions that went along with it were also scrapped.
But the agency seems to have changed its tune since Curiosity landed – the press release about the new plan actually starts with: “building on the success of Curiosity’s Red Planet landing.” True, this new plan isn’t quite as ambitious as the previous decadal one (yet – it could still become a carbon copy of the ex-decadal plan), but it does put NASA back in the ExoMars missions and launching every other year.
There are two things that jump out to me in this announcement. First is NASA’s renewed commitment to Mars in light of Curiosity’s success. This may not be the case, but it makes the Powers That Be (or choose in this case) look almost fickle. If the Sky Crane had been a horrible disaster and Curiosity had slammed into the Martian surface hard enough for its radioisotope thermoelectric generator to somehow explode and nuke Mars, would the will to dedicate time and money to this sequential and methodical exploration of the Red Planet be as strong? If the 2014 mission fails, or the 2016 mission, or both, will NASA (read: congress) lose its nerve and put a freeze on future Mars missions, particularly the 2020 flagship mission?
The other thing that stands out about this plan is the goal. There isn’t, strictly speaking, an end point (yet). I’m a fan of end points, like a Mars sample return mission or a lander designed to sample the ice locked in Mercury’s polar craters. Definite goals help us focus, which is really important for an agency dealing with billions of dollars and big technologies, and end points are usually a good place to start planning a long term series of missions. Without a definitive goal, the agency could run the risk of spinning its wheels.
But that doesn’t mean we ought to pick an arbitrary goal and get there with a crash program. Personally, I love big science goals in space that have NASA and its international partners take a methodical approach to a big problem. And I really love when that methodical approach yields the technology and methods we can use to explore multiple destinations throughout the solar system with a variety of payloads. I’d love to see this Mars plan do that – have a scientific goal at its core and develop a whole arsenal of techniques we can apply to missions throughout the solar system. We’ll have to wait and see how this new plan develops.
While I’d caution it’s worth tempering your excitement over this announcement – nothing is a sure bet until there’s flight hardware – that the plan fits within NASA already strained budget is a very good thing. The February 2012 proposed federal budget Obama released for the fiscal year 2013 (which runs from October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013) included a 20 percent cut to NASA’s Division for Planetary Science. A lot of that money came out of the Mars Exploration Program (MEP), which is just one item within the agency’s whole Planetary Science budget. So if this audacious new plan is really feasible under the MEP umbrella in NASA’s current financial situation, we should see all these missions fly without the agency taking money away from other planetary goals. It might turn out to be a win all around.