April 29, 2010

Budget Constraints Could Force Changes To Mars Missions

Despite receiving an extra $6 billion in federal funding, NASA could be forced to break down Mars missions into smaller parts in order to save funding, an expert told reporters on Wednesday.

In a telephone briefing with reporters, Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, the current head of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, suggested that a single mission to retrieve samples from the planet's surface could be broken down into three smaller missions.

Squyers laid out his plans by telephone from Texas, where he was participating in a conference about extraterrestrial life. First, a rover-type robot could land on the surface and collect a sample. Next, a lander unit would touch down, collect the sample, and then fire it into orbit around mars. The third mission would entail the collection of the sample from the Martian orbit and the transport of it to Earth, where it could then be analyzed and studied.

"It makes the program more affordable because it strings out the cost over time," Squyres said during the phone briefing. "It brings down the cost per year of doing such a thing."

Missions like the ones described by Squyres have become paramount to the future of the American space program. Earlier this month, NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced that the U.S. government would be cancelling a scheduled return trip to the moon and would begin focusing exploration efforts on the "Red Planet."

On April 15, President Barack Obama, speaking at the Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, re-emphasized the country's commitment to the Mars missions--even expressing his desire to help NASA land an astronaut on the planet's surface by 2035. "I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth," the President said at the time.


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