Before This Decade is Out: Robotic Mars Edition

Decades make great sales tools. Kennedy used a decade timeframe to sell American on the moon in 1961. Robert Zubrin recently tried the same pitch and called for a manned mission to Mars by the end of a decade (Zubrin’s been pitching a decade-long manned Mars program since the 1980s to no avail). A decade is a nice  round number, and when you’re at the start of a decade – like the year 1961 or 2011 – people (namely Congress and taxpayers) can easily contemplate the end of a decade as a timeframe. But it isn’t  only large-scale manned programs that use a round decade as a sales tool. Recently, the National Research Council’s Committee on Planetary Science in cooperation with NASA released an outline of its planetary goals for the coming decade. Where Mars in concerned, there is a pretty impressive program in the works from 2012 to 2023. But unlike the moon landing, bottomless funding isn’t going to achieve the goals at any cost. Instead, the next decade on Mars (pictured) will face certain challenges to meet the decadal goal. 

The driving force behind exploration of Mars – and indeed most planetary exploration – is the search for life. All missions have been somehow involved in answering this central question. The Viking landers that reached Mars in 1976 failed to find life, prompting a lull in missions sent to the planet while scientists studied the data from the landers. A big push came in 1996 when evidence of fossilized bacteria was found in a meteorite from Mars. In situ exploration resumed in 1997 with Sojourner, followed by Spirit and Opportunity in 2004 and the Mars Phoenix Lander in 2008. (Pictured, meteorite ALH 84001, the meteorite from Mars that held evidence of fossilized bacteria.)

The search for life on Mars is broken into three main questions: was there life on Mars, where was it and how did it form, and how did Mars’s shifting conditions affect this life? Alternatively, if these missions fail to turn up any concrete evidence of life on the red planet, the question will become why life never arose.

Whatever the answer, or answers as the case may be, the method involves a sort of biological reverse-engineering of Mars’ history. A thorough understanding of Mars’ history including the planet’s climate, environments, orbit, rotation, and axis tilt all impact how and where scientists search for life.

To this end, NASA has developed a series of missions over the next decade that will not only further our understanding of Mars and its history, but culminate in the first sample return mission. To do this, a mission must launch to Mars at every opportunity – launch windows to Mars come roughly every 26 months.  This plan calls for five missions, one each launch window which arrives roughly every 26 months.

Mars Science Laboratory and the rover Curiosity are set to launch this year around Thanksgiving and arrive on Mars in the summer of 2012. The rover is the biggest payload yet sent to the planet weighing in at one ton. It will explore the surface, traveling faster than its predecessor rovers. Its top speed on a flat surface is about 4 centimeters or 1.5 inches per second, which roughly translates to 0.09 miles per hour. By comparison, Spirit and Opportunity could travel 5 centimetres or 2 inches per second, but the rovers’ hazard avoidance system had them stopping so frequently they averaged 1 centimetre per second. (Pictured, an artist’s impression of Curiosity on Mars.)

Curiosity will also apply more sophisticated instruments to the overall scientific goal of exploring and assessing Mars as a potential habitat for life, past or present. It will used ten different instruments on the surface as well as a rock and soil sampling system. Together, these instruments will be able to detect and study specific targets both in situ and remotely, as well as collect and analyze surface material.

In 2014, another missions will go to Mars. This time, an orbiter will be sent to the planet with the sole goal of measuring the escape rate of Mars’ remaining atmosphere. Results from this orbiter will give scientists an idea of what kind of atmosphere Mars had in its early life and when it started to escape. This will also give an indication of when in Mars’ history the planet had the best environment to potentially harbour life.

2016 and 2018 will see two joint missions by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). In 2016, NASA will launch the ESA’s orbiter as well as an Entry, Descent, and Landing Module (EDM). The orbiter will use onboard instruments to detect and study trace gases in the atmosphere while the EDM will use sensors to evaluate a landed payload’s EDL performance as well as study the landing site. (Left, an artist’s impression of the ESA orbiter and the NASA rover of the 2016 and 2018 mission. Photo: ESA’s ExoMars site.)

In 2018, a NASA will send two rovers to Mars – one American and one European. Both will land together at the same sight but carry different science payloads. The ESA rover will carry a drill and a suite of instruments for exobiology and geochemistry research while the NASA rover will collect and store samples.

This will mark the beginning of the sample return mission – the 2018 rover’s collected samples, each roughly the volume of a Bic pen, will be those that make it back to Earth. The sample return mission will be done in segments over three separate missions, essentially allowing redundancy and a holding period into the mission in the event of a schedule slip or loss of funding.

The first rover will collect samples from the surface and store them. A second lander carrying a ‘fetch’ rover would collect the samples and transfer them to an ascent vehicle that would place the samples in orbit. A third spacecraft would then collect the samples from Martian orbit and return them to Earth. The mission seems fairly straightforward as it’s basically an automated Apollo style landing, ‘EVA’, and return home without the risk of death to a crew. (Right, an artist’s impression of the 2018 ‘fetch’ rover, delivered to Mars via the Sky Crane.)

The purpose of bringing samples back to Earth as opposed to continuing with in situ study through landers is to give scientists access to better tools. Any instrument sent to Mars on a rover or lander is stuck in time – the early 2002 technology on the MER rovers will always be 2002 technology. Software updates exist, but mission planners are generally hesitant to make upgrades in case the spacecraft doesn’t react favourably; a slow rover with dated hardware and software is better than a silent rover. On Earth, scientists can continually revisit samples as technology develops, revealing more about Mars’ history without having to send another mission to the red planet. (Left, Spirit. Self-portrait shows the rover from above, frozen in time. 2005.)

Ultimately, a better and more thorough understanding of Mars’ history will make planning and executing a manned mission that much simpler. It’s impossible to develop technology for a manned mission without knowing as much about the surface, weather, and atmosphere as possible.

But the cracks are already forming in this plan. MSL was originally intended to launch in 2009, forcing a reevaluation of the capabilities and realities of long-term Martian goals. A slipped launch is a recoverable setback. More problematic is the budget constraints facing NASA.

A lot of budget problems stem from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Set to replace the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST will include state of the art infrared and spectroscopic cameras and a host of new technologies ranging from optics to detectors to thermal control systems. Innovation, however, comes at a cost – literally in this case. The project is behind schedule and grossly over budget. When it’s finally ready to go and on the launch pad, the price tag will be in the $8 billion range. For comparison, MSL is closer to the $2 billion mark. (An artist’s impression of the JWST in orbit.)

The JWST program has already been close to cancellation, and its plausible that the inflated cost will sway congress to cut NASA’s funding. NASA typically puts most of its money into the manned program – there will never be bucks without Buck Rogers – and with the overall budget cut, the unmanned planetary end of things is likely to suffer most. This could put a hold on any Mars missions and set the decadal goal back.

Congress is still waiting to finalize NASA’s budget for the fiscal year 2013, which means in the mean time the organization can’t start any missions. It can’t award contracts to private companies or NASA centres like JPL to build the next missions’ orbiters and rovers if it has no guarantee the funding will come through.

The delay in NASA’s finalized budget is also affecting ESA’s commitment to the 2016 ExoMars program. The joint ESA and NASA missions are not independent, and the ESA is unlikely to fund the its portion if NASA can’t commit to funding its share. The problem here lies in timing; the ESA’s budget is coming up for discussion before congress is likely to make its recommendation on NASA’s budget.

It seems unlikely that the missions would be cancelled altogether. A more probable outcome is that various problems would push back each mission.

But budgets aren’t the only factor affecting the decadal goals. A heavy weight rests on Curiosity’s successful landing with the Sky Crane system. The Sky Crane, which solves the problems associated with the limitations of the Viking-era landing technologies, is the landing method for all payloads for the foreseeable future. If Curiosity fails to land safely, it’s likely NASA will succeed at solving the problem; reverse engineering a lost lander turned the failed Polar lander into the successful Mars Phoenix lander. In the event that something goes catastrophically and inexplicably wrong, however, the need to develop new technology could take a heavy toll on the decadal goals. (Left, an artist’s impression of the Sky Crane in action.)

With launch windows once every 26 months, a complicated and innovative landing system, and budget concerns, it’s easy to see how the next ten years on Mars could easily become twenty. This is turn could push back any plans for a manned mission to the red planet. But like all programs NASA and the ESA undertake, they are designed to work both technologically and in terms of schedules. MSL will kickstart the decadal program when it launches in November. We’ll have to wait and see how everything goes.

Author’s note: In February 2013, Obama released the proposed budget for NASA for 2013 and all of these goals have been shelved. For a look at what’s to come in the next decade on Mars after the recent budget cuts, check out this article. (March 6, 2012.)


Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

“Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022”, Committee on the Planetary Science Decadal Survey; National Research Council. 2011. (pdf)

Mars 2018 Mission, JPL.

Mars Beyond 2020, JPL.

Evidence of Ancient Life in Martian Meteorite, NASA.

ESA/NASA ExoMars Program, ESA.

James Webb Space Telescope, NASA.

MSL Science Corner, NASA.

3 thoughts on “Before This Decade is Out: Robotic Mars Edition

  1. Good overview.

    I wouldn’t be too concerned with MSL new landing system, the Sojourner/MER system was new too, as well as the Viking system at the time (IIRC). But of course there is still some estimated 5 % risk of brake, descent and landing failure, I think.

    Some nitpicks though:

    “the meteorite from Mars that held evidence of fossilized bacteria” – that held _purported_ evidence. I don’t think very many believes the scientists involved managed to convince of fossilized life.

    “the rovers’ hazard avoidance system had them stopping so frequently they averaged 1 centimetre per second.”

    And that hasn’t changed. As I remember it they estimate Curiosity may eventually travel twice as fast as the MERs, as the software is upgraded. But presumably it will start out as slow, essentially having the same routines as the MERs have.

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