Rover Curiosity is a star, but can it help fund future of Mars exploration?
The steady stream of enticing photographs from the rover Curiosity may be wowing scientists and the public, but NASA is facing serious budgetary constraints on the future of Mars exploration.
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The goal, Mr. McCuistion says in an interview, is to have a plan set for consideration in the budget President Obama will present to Congress in January for fiscal 2014.Skip to next paragraph
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The team conducting the overhaul, the Mars Program Planning Group, has been working hard to preserve the goal of a sample-return mission while looking for ways to weave its way more deeply into the human-exploration program for the red planet, with an eye for developing technologies and research objectives that will benefit both.
Based on the June meeting and a status report the planning group presented to members of the NASA Advisory Committee in late July, the group is considering several paths.
For instance, the agency could loft an orbiter mission either as a communications satellite around Mars to support existing and future missions, as some sort of technology demonstration mission, or to conduct further science investigations. An orbiter mission of some sort would fit into the funding stream envisioned in the FY 2013 budget, with some adjustments within other NASA accounts.
If Curiosity finds it's organics, NASA could follow the orbiter up with a mission to the surface in 2020 or 2022 to collect and store samples for later return or conduct further studies of the organics.
No organics? NASA could send rovers to several sites to explore additional options for returning samples. Or it could hold off until 2022 or 2024 to pursue a full out sample-return mission – one that might require two launches.
Some Mars researchers say they worry that if the Mars program becomes too intimately tied to human exploration of Mars, the program may suffer the same fate as the lunar science missions that emerged from President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.
NASA lofted a high-profile, two-in-one mission – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the crater-crashing LCROSS – and more recently the GRAIL lunar-gravity mission. But with the Obama administration's shift in emphasis to destinations for humans beyond the Earth-moon system, lunar missions have fallen by the wayside, these researchers argue.
But as McCuistion sees it, Mars has legs.
Humanity has fixed its gaze on the red planet for millenniums, and considered its prospects as a habitable world for generations.
From "popular culture to scientific discovery, it's been one of the most interesting and highly recognized 'other worlds,' " he says. As an ultimate destination for human exploration, "Mars ranks right up there. Nobody's ever lost sight of the excitement of getting humans to Mars. I think that will not change."
But he adds, political will plays a key role.
"It is a long-term commitment. The nation, through Congress and multiple administrations, has to make a commitment to doing that," he says.
With planning nearly complete for Mars Exploration Program 3.0, the MAVEN mission's Dr. Jakosky takes an upbeat view.
"I don't see MAVEN as the last mission" in the Mars Exploration Program, he says. "I see it as the next mission."