Curious Mars


The Past is Prologue to the Future When It Comes to the Next Decade of Mars Exploration

©ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The details of the central mesa inside Hebes Chasma are seen in close-up detail in this perspective view.

Past missions, and in some case the spare parts of past missions, will help drive the next decade of Mars exploration, a panel of experts from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of California at Berkeley, told an audience yesterday at the AIAA SPACE 2014 Forum in San Diego.

The session provided a comprehensive look at current and past missions, with Joe C. Parrish, NASA JPL deputy manager of the Mars Program Formulation Office, stating that "We are quite fortunate at this time to have 11 mission over the next decade: five operating, two on their way, and four on the board for future deployment."

The amount of scientific information that we have already gained from existing missions was reviewed in depth, with special attention shown to the Mars Exploration, Opportunity, and Curiosity rover missions - all of which have just about settled the debate about water on Mars and the early potential for microbial life. Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist at the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA JPL, summed it up best "our evidence shows that Mars had water for thousands, if not millions, of years."

After the discussion of Mars' watery past, it was time to look at what future explorations might yield. With robust discussions of the ongoing MAVEN mission which will yield valuable clues to the dissipation of Mars' atmosphere; the 2016 Mars Insight mission, which will place a stationary lander on the Martian surface to drill beneath the Martian surface to measure seismic activity and core heat, and the 2020 Mars Rover that will have the capability to send samples back from Mars to Earth, allowing for a much more nuanced and in-depth study of them for signs of life. Each of these programs seeks to answer the same basic questions: How did Mars form? What happened to its atmosphere? And was there, at one time, microbial life on the planet? Each builds on the heritage of the projects before it, perhaps most literally illustrated with the Mars 2020 mission that entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase lead Allen Chen said "will use both the 'sky-crane' delivery system and left-over spare parts from the Curiosity Rover mission to mitigate the risk of mission failure," succinctly stating: "if it's not broke, don't fix it!" Each panelist noted that the ultimate goal of each of the missions is to gather the crucial data needed for successful human exploration of Mars by, or before, 2040.

Other revelations from the session included an amusing discussion of the Curiosity Rover's tires - with Vasavada noting that "who knew if you had a sharp rock on bedrock that the weight of the rover coming down on it would damage the tire? Now we know. Sand is much better, if you hit a sharp rock on sand, the rover simply pushes the rock down, hit that same rock on bedrock and it's problematic."

Chen emphasized that "Mars 2020 has learned Curiosity's lesson and that its tires will be able to withstand those interactions." Chen also emphasized that the Mars 2020 rover will employ "a much better aerodynamic decelerator, or parachute system, that will help avoid "Curiosity's slight overshoot of its landing zone."

Robert Lillis, member of the MAVEN Science Team at the University of California Berkeley, emphasized that MAVEN's "gull-wing design" will allow it to cruise "much more efficiently through the lowest reaches of Mars' upper-atmosphere, "at about 120 kilometers above the surface," allowing for a "complete examination of the entire upper atmosphere, which was not possible before. While Tom Hoffman, the project manager of the Insight mission, emphasizing the role that past rover missions have had on the careful selection of Insight's landing area, "optimizing our ability to take seismic and heat readings in the best ways possible." When the discussion ended, it was very clear that when it comes to exploring Mars, the past is indeed prologue for a very bright future!

By Duane Hyland, special to SpaceRef

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