Our Future on Mars is Looking Up

After months of traveling across a cratered plain, NASA's Spirit rover took this image of a large, continuous rock outcrop at "Columbia Hills" with its hazcam - hazard avoidance camera. Photo credit: NASA

The future of Martian exploration might be looking up. Last week, NASA received nearly 400 submissions for missions as part of the Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration Workshop held in Houston. 

NASA’s future on Mars has taken a bit of a turn lately. When the 2013 budget was released last year, funding for planetary missions was hit hard. The space agency pulled out of the ExoMars mission – a joint mission with the European Space Agency (ESA) – which effectively killed its plans for a sample return mission by 2022. The prospect of a 2018 mission, a year that sees the fastest transit time between the two planets in 15 years, failed to gain traction under the current budget crunch.

But Obama has sought to inspire the future of space by challenging NASA To put a manned crew in orbit around Mars by 2030. It’s a goal that, despite the current financial situation, NASA is still working towards.

An artist's concept of the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity exploring the surface. The rover a little over two months away from its early August landing on the red planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL

The big decisions for the future of Martian exploration fall to the Mars Program Planning Group. The MPPG was established by NASA in reaction to the 2013 budget, and it’s designed to deal with the realities of the new fiscal environment, changing priorities, and recent scientific and technological developments. Its ultimate goal is to reshape the long-term future vision of Mars exploration.

In April, NASA put out a call for proposals, submitted to the MPPG, for new Mars missions. The deadline was May 10, and the agency got more than double what it was expecting. Nearly 400 submissions came from individuals and teams with varied backgrounds. Some are professional researchers, some undergraduate and graduate students, some NASA employees, while others work in federal laboratories, industry, or are affiliated with international partner organizations.

The one commonality across the board is the overwhelming drive to explore and better understand Mars. “This strong response sends a clear message that exploring Mars is important to future exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington who chairs the agencywide reformulation strategy. Grunsfeld is also an astronaut and astrophysicist, and the one to whom the MPPG reports.

The next challenge facing the MPPG is selecting the best ideas for further study. Invited selectees will discuss concepts, options, capabilities, and innovations taking into consideration the availability of resources and time frame. The discussion, which will happen during a workshop hosted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston on June 12-14, will play a part in shaping a strategy for exploration beginning as early as 2018 and stretching into the next decade.

An artist's concept of human explorers on Mars, trekking over the dusty martian landscape on expeditions beyond their outpost. Image credit: NASA

“Developing abstracts is very time consuming, requiring intense preparation, and we appreciate the fabulous response,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program in Washington. Since space at the workshop is limited, the proceedings will be broadcast live online. In the name of transparency, anyone will be able to observe the scientific and engineering deliberations.

The chosen proposals will be considered for early mission planning as early as the 2018-2024 timeframe. Longer-term ideas will be planned for the 2026 and beyond timeframe.

Overall, the options developed by the MPPG are expected to advance the scientific objectives in the National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey – this was the plan that anticipated a mission every other year between 2012 and 2022 culminating in the sample return. While the decadal plan is no long viable, returning Martian sample to Earth – a fascinating and important goal – remains a high priority.

“Getting to Mars is hard,” said Grunsfeld. “We’ve had successes and losses, but the human spirit to continue exploring the Red Planet prevails.”

The MPPG report outlining the best course for the future on Mars is expected to be delivered for NASA review at the end of the summer. Of course, the result of the meeting could change very quickly with a presidential election around the corner.

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