NASA's Mars orbiter turns 10: What's next for Mars exploration?

The space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on August 10, 2005. The orbiter has sent back a plethora of data, but NASA has even more ambitious goals for future exploration of the Red Planet.

NASA/JPL/Uni­versity of Arizona/Reuters
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) photo shows frost on Mars in this April 11 image by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera released on July 30. The MRO turned 10 on Aug. 10.

NASA has been celebrating a number of Mars-related anniversaries this year, from the 50th anniversary of Mariner 4 flying past the Red Planet – the first spacecraft to successfully do so – to the 10-year anniversary of the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the orbital probe that continues to circle the planet, sending data back to researchers on Earth.

The current exploratory missions have enjoyed many recent triumphs. NASA’s Curiosity rover – which landed on the planet on Aug. 6, 2012 in breathtaking, and terrifying fashion – has been sending back pictures of the planet’s surface for years to its now two million Twitter followers. The rover celebrated its three-year anniversary on the planet earlier this month.

But what next for Mars exploration? More specifically, after 50 years of robotic exploration, when will human boots take the next great leap for mankind and land on the planet’s dusty red surface?

On its website, NASA says it is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s – goals outlined in both the US National Space Policy, issued in 2010, and the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

“Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery,” the agency says on its website. “Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet’s history and future.”

Furthermore, the agency adds, future exploration “could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?”

In recent months NASA publicly repositioned its human exploration program as a series of stepping stones. First, the agency is conducting an ongoing mission in low-Earth orbit to study how the human body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health on long voyages into deep space.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will spend a year on the International Space Station performing research until March 2016. Scientists and doctors on the ground will study both astronauts during their stay on the space station – looking at the effects on everything from motor skills and metabolism to changes in eyesight and ocular health.

NASA will also study Mark Kelly, Scott’s identical twin, in parallel to get more subtle insights into how the human body might change in space.

The second step will be to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the Moon. NASA aims to send humans to explore the asteroid by 2025 on the Orion spacecraft – a spacecraft designed for deep space missions that is already in development. The manned asteroid mission will send human astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time, where they will collect samples and also test new systems and technologies for future missions into deep space, such as Solar Electric Propulsion.

“Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown,” the agency says on its website.

In the meantime, the agency is also working on technologies to help humans live and work on Mars. In May, NASA launched the “Journey to Mars Challenge” calling on the public for ideas on how to keep Mars astronauts alive in ways that would be “technically achievable, economically sustainable, and minimize reliance on support from Earth.” The three winning ideas would each get a $5,000 award.

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