NASA's Mars program riding on a rover heading for touch down
The one-ton Mars rover named Curiosity is set to land on the red planet at around 1:31 am Eastern time.
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"There's nothing in the pipeline after MAVEN next year," he says, referring to the launch of an orbiter slated to help unravel the history of Mars' atmosphere and the planet's transition from a warm, wet orb early in its history to the dry conditions researchers observe today. The proposed cuts puts the Mars program into "pretty much a going-out-of-business mode."Skip to next paragraph
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A success, however, would make a strong case for keeping the program alive and healthy, especially if in the next three to six months Curiosity uncovers organic material in the rocks and minerals that could represent the dog-eared calling cards of ancient, simple forms of life. Finding such markers would make a strong case for continuing along a path that ultimately leads to a Mars sample-return mission – a consistent, high priority in the once-a-decade agenda astronomers draw up for space missions and other key research priorities.
From a technology perspective, Mars Science Laboratory represents the maiden voyage of a system NASA hopes will serve as the foundation for future Mars missions, says Doug McCuistion, current head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program.
Through all of the past agenda setting, as well as in conversations with scientists now about how to move forward at Mars on a budget so tight it may not even be able to squeak, no one envisions missions that will require placing anything heavier than one ton on the Martian surface, according to Mr. McCuistion.
Curiosity and its curious landing system represent "the workhorse for the future," he says.
Given all the tests engineers have performed on Curiosity and its landing system, if the landing fails, it will more likely be the planet's fault rather than NASA's, Hubbard suggests – a gust of wind hitting the craft at the wrong time during its descent, or the rover coming to wheels-extended rest on an oddly shaped rock, causing it to tumble turtle-like into a position from which it can't right itself.
"Then the question is: Whither the budget for NASA?" he says, adding that if the US backs off from its strong Mars exploration program, other spacefaring nations will continue to move ahead. Indeed, last week India's prime minister reportedly gave his OK for the country's first mission to Mars, an orbiter that could be launched in November 2013.
Even in the face of a failure – for which there would be reams of data to pour over for learning its hard lessons – walking away from Mars exploration "would be foolish in my mind," Hubbard says.
Over the past 15 years – from a rover the size of a small microwave oven to MSL – the effort also is leading to the technology for a sample-return mission as well as eventual human exploration.
Curiosity's heavily instrumented heat shield and the radiation measurements taken during its cruise phase to the autonomously-guided maneuvers the descent stage will perform to place Curiosity in the smallest landing zone yet identified, typify the progressive steps in technology that have been built into the current program form the beginning.
Even if Curiosity ends up as a bent tangle of wheels, arm, and mast, "what we lose is incredible if we don't do it again," McCuistion says.
Given the enormous talent the nation has amassed to conduct these kinds of missions, "I think that last thing the nation can afford is to have the kind of gap between Viking and Pathfinder that we had" between 1980, when the Viking missions ended, and 1996, when Pathfinder launched.
At Mars, "the science is on the surface," he says. Losing the "core competency" the US has in Mars exploration "would be hard to rebuild."