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Is NASA Changing Course On Mars Exploration?

Saturday, October 8, 2016 13:25
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With an increasing number of companies and countries proposing missions to Mars, NASA may be changing how it conducts its missions there. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS

With rival companies SpaceX and United Launch Alliance making serious plans to get to Mars, NASA’s future role in the exploration of Mars may be about to change. As it stands now, NASA is the only organization to have a successful mission to Mars under its belt. But with private companies in the USA, and organizations from other countries setting their sights on Mars, NASA is beginning to re-think how it does things. NASA’s Mars missions work like this: individual teams of scientists propose payloads designed to study a particular aspect of Mars. The instruments are then built into the overall design of the rover, or orbiter, then that same team of scientists manages that instrument and collects the data. Obviously, this has worked well in the past. But the context of Martian exploration is changing. China and the European Space Agency both have plans to send rovers to Mars, and United Arab Emirates plans to send an orbiter. While NASA has been sending a steady stream of missions to Mars, there is only one more planned, the Mars 2020 Rover. SpaceX plans to begin sending their Dragon landers to Mars starting in 2018, though the first one will not be manned. A short time ago the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, announced even more ambitious plans for travel to Mars. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System is designed to allow a permanent human colony on Mars. The proposed timeline is ambitious, with the first cargo-only flight launching no sooner than 2022, and the first trip carrying humans launching during the next Earth-Mars window about 2 years later. Not to be outdone, rival company United Launch Alliance, (a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) recently announced that they think they can get to Mars even sooner. At The Atlantic’s “What’s Next” conference, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said “I’m convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.” Those are bold words, for sure. Boastful, even. But Boeing has a track record of success when it comes to space flight, having developed or co-developed projects like the Saturn-V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. (Incidentally, the Saturn-V rockets remains the most powerful rocket ever built. But not for much longer.) As for SpaceX, they have a growing track record of success themselves. So where does this game of Martian one-upmanship leave NASA?

“The era that we all know and love and embrace is really coming to an end.”

The head of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is Jim Watzin. On October 6th he told a meeting of the Mars advisory group that “The era that we all know and love and embrace is really coming to an end. It’s important to recognize that the future is not going to be the same as the past.” The words sound a little foreboding, perhaps. But they don’t signal an end to NASA’s exploration of Mars so much as a change in the model of how that exploration is done. And the new model may closely resemble how telescope observing time is doled out on both terrestrial telescopes and space telescopes. With telescopes, astronomers submit detailed requests for observing time, outlining how much time they need and what they’d like to study. A committee looks over all the proposals and decides how the telescope time will be allocated. That model has been very successful. Future NASA Mars exploration missions would work in a similar way. An orbiter would have a suite of instruments, and planetary scientists would submit proposals to use those instruments for periods of time to study certain things.

“I’m not trying to fix something that’s broken.”

“I’m not trying to fix something that’s broken,” Watzin said. “I’m trying to open the door to a larger level of collaboration and participation than we have today, looking to the fact that we’re going to have a larger pool of stakeholders involved in our missions.” It’s important to note that there is no official change in NASA policy at this time. It’s just an idea. At the same meeting of the Mars advisory group, planetary scientist Jeffrey Johnson, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said “The idea right now needs to be fleshed out.” He added, “It’s a little early yet to figure out how the community is going to respond.”

“We’ve managed to do all the things [Watzin] described already without a new paradigm.”

But the community has already begun to respond, and not everyone is enthusiastic about this potential change. Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, told that “We’ve managed to do all the things [Watzin] described already without a new paradigm.” McEwen would know. He is the Principal Investigator the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRise Camera. “We have distributed operations, we have multiple customers, we have a foreign contributed instrument. So my immediate reaction to this idea was not very positive,” McEwen said. The playing field on Mars is definitely changing, though, and what has more or less been a NASA monopoly on Mars is changing. With more countries heading to Mars, and with private companies leading the charge, change is most definitely coming to Martian exploration. Whether this specific “time-share “model of investigation is adopted, or some other model, don’t expect NASA to sit idly by and keep doing things the same way. Sources: NASA rethinks approach to Mars exploration

The post Is NASA Changing Course On Mars Exploration? appeared first on Universe Today.


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