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Scientists worry about long-term future of NASA’s Mars exploration program

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WASHINGTON — As NASA gears up a decade-long effort to return samples from Mars, some scientists are fearful that the marketing campaign could not depart any funding accessible for different robotic missions to the planet.

The one future NASA mission to Mars underneath improvement is Mars 2020, a rover at present within the closing phases of meeting and scheduled to launch in July 2020. The rover, based mostly on the Curiosity rover that has been on Mars for seven years, will cache Martian rock and soil samples for later return to Earth.

Whereas NASA hasn’t formally dedicated to the extra missions wanted to retrieve the samples and return them to Earth, both NASA and the European Space Agency have started planning for them. That method features a NASA-led mission to land on Mars, fetch the samples and launch them into orbit across the planet, and an ESA-led mission to seize the pattern container in orbit and return it to Earth. Each missions would launch in 2026, returning the samples in 2031.

However as attendees of a gathering final month of the Mars Exploration Program Evaluation Group (MEPAG) in Pasadena, California, famous, there are just about no different Mars robotic missions being developed. The one exception is Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE), a proposed smallsat mission to check the interplay of the photo voltaic wind with the Martian ambiance that NASA selected in June as part of a new planetary science smallsat program. NASA is funding additional research of EscaPADE, however with no assure the mission will likely be authorised for improvement and launch.

That’s led to issues that Mars pattern return is pushing out different analysis that scientists need to carry out at Mars. “Our highest precedence is Mars pattern return, however now we have different priorities as nicely,” stated R. Aileen Yingst, chair of MEPAG, in feedback initially of the group’s July 26 assembly. “We should always handle excellent science questions in parallel with, or as a part of, pattern return. Proper now, there are not any flight alternatives that look ahead in that means.”

She famous that along with an absence of flagship-class Mars missions like Mars 2020, scientists can’t suggest medium-sized New Frontiers missions since such missions, whereas competed, are restricted to solely a handful of chosen locations that, for now, excludes Mars. The smaller Discovery program, which additionally selects missions in a contest, can be utilized for Mars mission, just like the InSight lander. Nevertheless, she stated, “it’s problematic to get to Mars underneath the Discovery value cap.”

“There’s some concern in the neighborhood that new information will not be forthcoming any time quickly,” she concluded.

Later within the assembly, scientists requested NASA officers in attendance about choices to handle this, reminiscent of flying further science devices on the pattern return lander and orbiter missions launching in 2026.

Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, stated NASA did think about flying further science payloads on these missions early of their improvement. Nevertheless, he argued that didn’t match into the “lean” Mars sample return architecture announced nearly two years ago by Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA affiliate administration for science, which seeks to carry out pattern return as rapidly and as inexpensively as doable.

“That was the appropriate determination,” he stated. These pattern return missions face “very, very intense propulsive calls for” to get to Mars and again. “Each time I add an additional kilogram of mass to that, it makes the issue tougher and tougher to implement.”

Some requested about one other orbiter to deal with communications with the floor and different roles, reminiscent of imaging, given the age of present orbiters. Watzin stated that launching the opposite two components of the pattern return marketing campaign in 2026 means there’s a “affordable likelihood” that present orbiters will nonetheless be capable to function no less than as communications relays.

As for an orbiter to do science, Watzin was extra pessimistic. “Sadly we reside in a world with restricted budgets,” he stated, acknowledging the necessity for a necessity for a brand new distant sensing mission to help science and, doubtlessly, future human exploration.

“Do I’ve a plan right now? No,” he stated a couple of new orbiter.

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