With NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover ready to start its multiyear mission to collect rocks and soil for future retrieval, planetary scientists are concerned other Mars research goals could suffer throughout the decade-long wait on those samples to finish their three-legged relay back to Earth.

With those concerns in mind, NASA’s planetary science division chartered the Mars Architecture Method Working Group (MASWG) in 2019 to find methods to initiate a varied set of Mars investigations along with the flagship sample-return campaign without breaking the bank.

In November, the group provided a final report to NASA that sets out an agenda for examining Mars utilizing a vast array of methods suggested to kick-start a higher cadence of clinical discovery at a sustainable expense.

Called A Comprehensive Program for Future Mars Exploration, the report requires trying the Red Planet’s lots of staying secrets utilizing everything from cubesats and industrial landers to top-shelf science probes.

Mars Sample Return stays the Mars science community’s leading concern, as the report makes clear. However without any other Mars science missions in NASA’s pipeline, the narrow focus on collecting and recovering numerous kilograms of rocks and soil from Jezero Crater might put larger examinations of the world on hold for years to come.

” As essential as Mars Sample Return (MSR) is– and it will result in a major advance for planetary science– assessment of product from a single website will not inform us everything that we require to know about Mars,” the MASWG report states.

Smallsat and cubesat missions have the potential to supply a new methods of examining Mars with more cost effective and more regular flights of payloads for scientific measurements and assistance of human expedition requirements. Credit: NASA Smallsat/Cubesat Fleet Missions Database

Bruce Jakosky, the University of Colorado, Boulder, scientist who chaired the MASWG, stated the report’s aim was to guarantee the remainder of the Mars Expedition Program does not lose momentum while Mars Sample Return takes center stage for the remainder of the decade.

” We’re at a point where it’s unclear what the Mars program is moving forward,” Jakosky informed SpaceNews. “There are no new missions that are being prepared beyond sample return.”

Jakosky said the MASWG developed a flexible, economical plan for performing a varied mix of Mars science missions in parallel to the flagship Mars Sample Return project and beyond.

The report calls for a reinvigorated “new vision” for NASA’s Mars Expedition Program, one that includes a range of spacecraft sizes, from fairly inexpensive cubesats and constellations of small spacecraft, to more standard, but low-priced, landers and rovers.

What’s more, the report’s authors state the strategy leverages advances in cubesats, smallsat constellations and more to take on essential science concerns without requiring more than roughly one-third of NASA’s yearly planetary science budget– a share on par with what NASA has invested in Mars given that the mid-1990 s when it started sending out brand-new robotic explorers to the Red World every number of years.

In composing their report, the 16- member MASWG team flagged small spacecraft as a “programmatic chance” for Mars and proposed a set of mission “arcs” that make up high-priority and scientifically rich research study that can be done throughout and after today Mars Sample Return age.

As examples of expedition arcs for Mars, the MASWG report suggests:

Arc 1: Explore varied environments of ancient Mars to understand early planetary development and the nature, timing, and geochemistry of environments, habitability, and/or biological potential of Mars.

Arc 2: Investigate the subsurface of Mars that hold numerous ideas to the early development of Mars and the possibility of an early Martian biosphere.

Arc 3: Perform ice science measurements to comprehend Martian ice ages in terms of the distribution and stratification of ice as it was emplaced/removed over the last hundred million years, both in the polar regions and in lower latitudes.

Arc 4: Understand climate variability and procedures of the current climate on Mars from hours to decades.

MASWG suggested reinforcing the NASA Mars Exploration Program to address fundamental science goals relating to the planet’s climate and geological development, past and present habitability, and more. It’s an agenda that’s not just important to Mars.

Revamped Mars program

” If NASA and Congress are serious about Mars expedition and a humans-to-Mars program, we require to revamp the Mars program and continue it as an energetic and robust program,” stated Jakosky, the principal private investigator for MAVEN, a 2013 Mars orbiter mission that’s still studying the planet’s atmosphere and will soon serve as a communications relay for Determination.

Jakosky stated that the key message from the MASWG report is “find out first what science you want to do and after that select a size class of spacecraft that can do it. It’s a brand-new world out there.”

The MASWG report likewise notes that there may be an avenue to work with business companies, or utilize contracting approaches originated from NASA’s Industrial Lunar Payload Providers (CLPS) program to achieve lower cost access to the Martian surface. There’s likewise potential value in establishing partnerships in between the numerous various federal governments and entities interested in Mars expedition, the report states.

Location for investment

” If there is one vital location for investment by NASA that is essential to make it possible for the MASWG technique, it is in little spacecraft and whether there are unique and lower expense ways to credibly explore the surface and subsurface of Mars,” stated Scott Hubbard, a MASWG committee member and previous director of NASA’s Mars program.

When It Comes To a “CLPS for Mars” program, Hubbard said while it is unclear if business case for commercial deep area truly exists, “NASA would be well-served to test the waters through a Request for Details, or similar acquisition tool.”

Hubbard stated that the MASWG report takes an explanatory tack by detailing four mission arcs that demonstrate what brand-new and interesting science may be accomplished using various types of expedition abilities. “The MASWG team was quite conscious of the likely financial restraints in the next few years therefore focused on starting these arcs or pathways utilizing little spacecraft,” he said.

Other mission arcs are definitely possible, the report points out, and the number and scale of arcs that can be pursued in parallel depend on offered dollars.

Build, preserve and enhance

In mid-November, throughout a conference of a National Academies committee working on the new planetary science decadal survey due out next year, MASWG co-chair Richard Zurek of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Program Workplace highlighted the requirement to build upon the successes of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program and put it on a great footing for the future.

” It is the variety of the planet that we’ve seen over the last two decades,” Zurek said. “We have to find a manner in which we can come down to the surface and discover some key things and not have it cost one to two billion dollars.”

One example of the sort of low-cost missions that could be dispatched to Mars is EXPERIENCE, a pair of smallsats that NASA meant to introduce in 2022 to study how the solar wind strips the atmosphere away from the world. Credit: UC Berkeley/Robert Lillis

Due to the complexity and varieties of environments that exist on Mars, Zurek stated that NASA should support objectives that do more than what a sample return project from a single point on earth can supply. For instance, helping determine ice deposits on Mars that can be utilized as a resource to support human activity on earth. There’s the concern of what the subsurface of the planet might yield. “The subsurface, after all, may be the last sanctuary of an early Mars biosphere. There might be water very deep in the crust,” Zurek said. “We still have much to discover.”

Zurek said having an enough variety of flight opportunities is very important to sustain the technical and analytic abilities of the Mars science neighborhood. More frequent opportunities may likewise be important to bring in the industrial sector and preserve worldwide collaborations in Mars expedition.

” Start little and go huge as the science determines,” Zurek said.

Rough cost estimate

The full Mars program laid out by MASWG would cost around $300 million a year throughout the first years, increase to $500 million a year beyond that. An additional $150 million a year, the report says, would be needed for technology advancement and funding extended missions.

Jakosky stated that a less-robust however still engaging suite of objectives could be carried out for $150 million each year in the first years, increase to $300 million each year after that.

These rough estimates, which Jakosky stated were based upon “easy presumptions” rather than an official cost analysis, do not include what NASA already plans to invest in Mars Sample Return or extended operations for numerous aging spacecraft currently studying the world.

Vital point

Besides Mars Sample Return and a planned Mars Ice Mapper mission to be moneyed by the company’s human spaceflight department, NASA does not have any directed Mars objectives in its pipeline for development in the decade ahead.

” It was acknowledged that the science to be done in exploring Mars is more than waiting on samples to go back to Earth,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Expedition Program at NASA Headquarter and ex officio for the MASWG report.

Ought To the Mars 2020 objective’s Determination rover not make it safely to the surface during its Feb. 18 landing attempt, the wait would be even longer.

” The loss of Determination would be ravaging,” Meyer informed SpaceNews.

If Determination crashes, Mars would still be there– mysteries undamaged. “There will still be lots of scientifically engaging objectives to do at Mars and sample return would still be of the highest priority,” Meyer said.

While NASA does not have a formal backup plan, it now has the MASWG report’s vision for a Mars Exploration Program that does not put all of its clinical eggs into one sample-return basket.

” Scientifically, Mars exploration does not stop with Mars Sample Return,” Jakosky said. “There are truly essential and engaging measurements to be made that will advance our understanding not simply of Mars but of the rest of the solar system and beyond.”

Jakosky stated now that the report is done, it depends on NASA to choose if it desires a Mars program that’s more than just sample return.

” We’re at a vital juncture. Now is the time to make choices or we lose the momentum that we have actually built up over the previous decades,” he said.

Preserving that momentum is about more than dealing with concerns mainly of interest to planetary scientists. If NASA plans to send individuals to Mars in the future, Jakosky said,” then there requires to be a continuing Mars program in order to address questions about the environment that astronauts will face and to ask questions that astronauts can resolve with a human objective.”

The Mars Architecture Method Working Group (MASWG) last report is offered at: https://mepag.jpl.nasa.gov/reports/ MASWG NASA Final Report2020 pdf


SpaceNews contributor Leonard David is the author of “Moon Rush: The New Area Race” released by National Geographic in May 2019.

A variation of this post originally appeared in the Jan. 18, 2021 concern of SpaceNews publication.

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