April 16, 2012
NASA Looking For Future Mars Mission Ideas
NASA, reeling from budget cuts to its space program, is planning its next Mars mission and wants help from scientists and engineers around the world to make it a reality, according to recent reports.
The research into a new Mars venture is being taken on by NASA´s Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), with the goal of finding a relatively low-cost way to send a robotic mission to Mars by 2020, and a possible human mission in the 2030s.
But a 21 percent budget cut to planetary science put into place by President Obama´s 2013 budget could turn that dream into a nightmare real fast if aerospace engineer Orlando Figueroa, head of operations at MPPG, cannot come up with plausible solutions.
The budget constraints have forced MPPG to re-evaluate the Mars program, said John Grunsfeld, MPPG associate administrator, in a recent statement. “We´re moving quickly to develop options for future Mars exploration missions and pathways.”
“As part of this process, community involvement, including international, is essential for charting the new agency-wide strategy for our future Mars exploration efforts,” added Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist, five-time space shuttle astronaut and associate administrator for NASA´s Science Mission Directorate at the agency´s headquarters in Washington.
MPPG´s new strategy for its Mars mission will be presented at a workshop hosted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston in June. The workshop “will provide an open forum for presentation, discussion and consideration of concepts, options, capabilities and innovations to advance Mars exploration,” NASA said in a statement. “These ideas will inform a strategy for exploration within available resources, beginning as early as 2018 and stretching into the next decade and beyond.”
In March, the MPPG established an initial draft outline of milestones and activities that includes options for missions and sequences bridging the objectives of NASA's science, human exploration and operations and technology.
MPPG said starting today the scientific and technical community around the world can submit their ideas online as part of NASA´s effort to find the best ideas from researchers and engineers in planetary science.
“Receiving input from our community is vital to energize the planning process,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. “We´ll integrate inputs to ensure the next steps for the Mars Exploration Program will support science, as well as longer-term human exploration and technology goals.”
NASA was part of the ExoMars program, partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA), but had withdrawn earlier this year due to budget constraints. NASA and the ESA had been working on missions to send to payloads to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018 that would have marked the first steps toward bringing Martian samples back to Earth. The ESA said it will continue to work on that program with the financial support of Russian space agency Roscosmos, with which it recently forged a partnership.
NASA officials say the ExoMars mission is a priority, but NASA needs to rethink its budgets and strategies in order to fulfill the country´s goal of one day sending humans to Mars. Any future missions will be aimed at preparing for that goal.
“What we're really trying to do is identify architectural pathways,” Grunsfeld told MSNBC.com. “This is the kickoff.”
NASA is calling for ideas that could be adapted for a $700 million Mars mission, launched as early 2018, involving either an orbiter or a lander. Any strong ideas and concepts will be discussed at the June workshop and will hopefully become realistic mission options by August.
NASA´s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory is on course to meet up with Mars in August, when it will drop a car-sized rover called “Curiosity” on the surface, where it will study the vast alien world for nearly 2 years.
Grunsfeld said Curiosity is making “rapid progress” toward reaching the Red Planet, and should arrive on August 6th.
While it is likely most of us will never see a human mission to Mars in our lifetime, the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan is giving us an idea of what it may be like on the Martian homeland. It is hosting a “Future of Space Exploration” exhibit, which includes a model of Mars and theories on what it might take and be like to live there.
For more information on NASA Mars program, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mars
Visit: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/marsconcepts2012/ for information on the forthcoming Mars mission workshop being held in June.