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NASA’s Mars Program Planning Group Outlines Future Exploration Options

NASA examines Mars exploration options in era of tight budgets


U. S. space policy makers, armed with a new set of exploration options developed by NASA’s Mars Program Planning Group but constrained by little prospect for budget growth, will wrestle with some pretty ambitious goals:

**Robotically acquire samples of Martian rock and soil and return them to Earth, where scientists can examine them for signs of past biological activity, a science priority established by National Research Council, a congressionally chartered think tank.

**Prepare for human missions to the Martian environs by the 2030s, an assignment given NASA by President Obama in April 2010 and considered a stepping stone to a surface mission.

If and when these objectives are mutually achievable over the long term may not be clear until the president presents his proposed 2014 budget to Congress in February. The content and timing,  too, could change with the outcome of the November national elections as well as unfolding 2013 budget deliberations.

In  the meantime, the 10-member planning group has introduced an intriguing new option — launch a crew of astronauts into deep space to rendezvous with robotically gathered Martian soil samples and escort them back to Earth with assurances the astrobiological materials would be contained so as not to present a contamination threat.

“Sample return represents the best opportunity to find synergies technologically between the (science and human exploration) programs,” John Grunsfeld, the Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told a news briefing that accompanied the unveiling of a 62 page summary of the planning group’s  yet-to-be-completed final report. “Sending a mission to go to Mars and return a sample looks a lot like sending a crew to Mars and returning them safely. There is a lot of parallelism of ideas there.”

The MMPG, led by Orlando Figueroa, was established in March in response to planetary science program spending cuts outlined in NASA’s proposed 2013 budget.  The planning group’s full report should be complete by October and the findings factored into NASA’s proposed 2014 budget.

 Yet to be approved by Congress, the 2013 spending plan  forecasts a “flat” total NASA budget of $17.7 billion through 2017. The planetary science line, however, falls from $1.5 billion this year to $1.1 billion in 2015 before starting a very gradual rise. NASA’s Mars line is more erratic, falling from $587 million this year to $188 million in 2015, then rising to $503 million in 2017.

The declines prompted NASA to withdraw from a  multi-mission Mars soil sample return collaboration with the European Space Agency late last year.

The MMPG was directed to examine a wide range of future mission options with human exploration as well as science objectives. The planning group consulted with the agency’s own mission planners and technologists as well as outside experts in the planetary science field.

The planning leverages off of two NASA Mars missions already in the works, the MAVEN Mars orbiter set for launch in late 2013 to study the Martian atmosphere and the InSight stationary Mars lander set for a 2016 lift off to study the Martian interior.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in early August, is off to a successful start on a  two-year mission in Gale Crater to determine whether the red planet once hosted conditions suitable for microbial life.

Future rover missions, even those assigned to soil sample collection, will be expensive, in the $1 billion, or what budget planners call the “flagship,” price range.

In a presentation to the National Research Council on the Mars summary plan on Tuesday, James Green, NASA’s director of planetary sciences, cautioned that the White House Office of Management and Budget is not interested in new “flagship” missions at the current time.

NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion/MultiPurpose Crew Vehicle, the backbone of a presidential and Congressional consensus on future U. S. human deep space exploration, remain a part of future budget planning. The SLS, a powerful new rocket for human deep space exploration, and the four person Orion/MPLM, could make important contributions to Mars science objectives, the planning group concluded.

Additional challenges abound, including new technologies to accurately land astronauts and equipment on Mars; technologies to propel a spacecraft off the surface of Mars; deep space human habitats; and optical communications systems to improve data transmissions between the Earth and Mars.




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