A Year of Mars News: It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

By Keith Cowing
October 29, 2000
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MarsMars Disappoints

A little over a year ago NASA was poised on the cusp of a new phase in its exploration of Mars. A new sophisticated orbiter was ready to join another already in orbit, a lander would be making the first ever landing in a polar region of Mars, and two high tech mini-probes would search for ground water.

All this would change in a scant few weeks.

In September 2000 the Mars Climate Orbiter slammed into Mars. Omission of some simple metric to english unit conversions was later found to be at the heart of a navigational error which sent the spacecraft deep into Mars’ atmosphere instead of skimming through its uppermost layers. Several months later the Mars Polar Lander (and its twin DS2 probes) descended towards a landing on Mars. They were never heard from again. Faulty software/sensor interaction in the landing system and lack of full system testing were faulted for the MPL failure while inadequate design and testing were cited as probable causes for the DS2 failures.

Several years of potentially exciting science and exploration suddenly evaporated. NASA’s Mars program was suddenly off track, Given tight budgets, a somewhat inflexible mandate to adhere to the faster-bettter-cheapr mantra, and the inexcusable nature of the problems, confidence in the ability of NASA to mount planetary missions was under question.

Mars Under Review

In March 2000, NASA held several press conferences to announce the results of the various review panels investigating the failure of the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter missions. This was to be followed by Congressional hearings where the events leading up to the report and the recommendations made to NASA were to be aired.

The results of the report were hardly unexpected: NASA had “pushed too far”, in Dan Goldin’ s own words. Management responsibilities across NASA and within programs were unclear, the number of people dedicated to specific tasks was inadequate, contractor oversight was insufficient; government and contractor interactions were often dysfunctional; testing was not done of full systems and spacecraft, and budgets were simply unrealistic. While citing serious flaws within its way of doing business, NASA was quick to avoid setting blame on individuals. NASA was also reluctant to suggest that its cherished “Faster-Better-Cheaper” approach was broke.

Instead, NASA felt that its fundamental approach was sound but was in need of some readjustment. Not only would NASA examine its approach to doing planetary missions, it would look back at those that were successful, and then re-examine its existing strategy with those lessons learned at hand. What followed were a number of internal and external workshops, advisory panel meetings, technical interchanges, and trade studies. Civil servants, contractors, scientists, and outside consultants were involved. A report on a new Mars exploration strategy was promised for the Fall of 2000.

During the Summer of 2000, NASA saw the clear need to make a decision regarding the imminent set of missions – the Mars 2001 orbiter and Mars 2001 lander. With launch windows (which open once every 26 months) and spacecraft production and integration looming ahead, NASA had to decide on both the 2001 and 2003 launches to Mars. NASA could not wait until the Fall for its long term plan to be in place and decided not to wait. So it went ahead.

NASA’s decision was to fly the Mars 2001 orbiter as planned but not to fly the Mars 2001 lander – the prime (although never explicitly stated) reason being that the lander was a near clone of the failed Mars Polar Lander. After some internal trade studies and some heated interaction with the White House (Office of Management and Budget) a plan emerged whereby one (shortly thereafter modified to be two) rovers would be sent to Mars in 2003.

Evidence of Liquid Water on MarsMars Surprises

Just as it seemed that the enthusiasm for Mars was starting to wane, Mars threw yet another surprise at us all in June 2000. After meticulous examination of imagery from the Mars Global Surveyor, NASA announced evidence of liquid water very close to the surface of Mars – activity that may well continue to the present day. For those who held out hope for life on present day Mars, this news was tantalizing since mobile, liquid water was the only ingredient that had yet to be found on Mars that was needed for life. Energy sources and all of the raw elements life requires were already known to exist in abundance.

At times, impending news of the announcement came close to generating the media hoopla that the Mars meteorite announcement had in April 1996. While the boost NASA’s exploration of Mars was given was significant, it was not as powerful as the one it got in 1996. It was also a much more somber and sober lift. Perhaps this is preferable since the post-1996 frenzy NASA was in to hurl itself at Mars resulted in a program that lost two missions in a row – both lost due to simple, dumb, and preventable mistakes.

In the months that followed the Mars water announcement, Mars revealed even more about itself. Clear evidence of ancient Martian oceans and complex weather structures were announced – as was evidence from Martian meteorites of a much wetter Martian past than previously thought. In just the past week or two, findings were published showing that terrestrial bacteria could be revived after a quarter of a billion years of dormancy within salt crystals (implications for finding dormant life on Mars and perhaps within Mars meteorites), that studies of one Martian meteorite pointed to indigenous organic material on Mars, and studies of another Martian meteorite showed that its interior could have been benign enough for hypothetical Martian life forms to have survived a trip from the surface of Mars, through space, to the surface of Earth.

No doubt future disappointing setbacks on Mars will continue to be offset by further exciting and inspiring discoveries.

Mars Reconsidered

NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science, Ed Weiler, has often said that the major flaw with NASA’s previous Mars exploration strategy is that it was driven towards a sample return mission – with nothing in place after that goal. No long-term, multi-decade strategy was in place to guide the characterization of the planet. There was also little or no technology demonstration done prior to its first flight on a mission – with multiple new approaches often flying for the first time on the same mission. As such, missions depended to a great extent upon the success of those already underway and failures really threw the overall program into disarray.

On 26 October 2000, NASA announced its news plan for the robotic exploration of Mars. According to Weiler, the key element to NASA’s revised plan is science. According to Weiler, this new plan is not mission driven – something many would argue was at the heart of NASA’s previous plan to explore Mars. Weiler described the new plan as being more specific in the near term and more general in the long term. This way, results from one mission can have a chance to affect subsequent mission design and objectives.

Weiler also spoke to the issue of releasing data in a prompt fashion. He said that NASA will strive to be certain that images and data will be on the Internet as soon as it arrives on Earth. This would, of course, be in stark contrast with the Mars Global Surveyor mission wherein images can languish for months or years before appearing online.

As for management, Scott Hubbard, Mars Program Director at NASA Headquarters, said that management issues raised in the Young report (the main review of what went wrong) and elsewhere had been addressed and that clear lines of both responsibility and accountability had been instituted within the management of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Hubbard described the new plan as “embarking on a Mars campaign that is unprecedented.” The plan follows the trail of ancient water on Mars as well as mounts an effort to understand the present water inventory on Mars. All the while looking for the conditions that might once have supported life (and may still do so)

Hubbard also touched upon changes in how one Mars mission affected subsequent missions. With the previous approach taken by NASA, the next series of missions was already well along in development when the current batch of missions was either being launched or already underway. This precluded any radical changes in a subsequent mission should a mission fail. An example of this is the fact that the 2001 Lander, the next lander in the queue, shared a substantial amount of design heritage with the failed Mars Polar Lander.

Another example is the fact that the design of the Mars Polar Lander (using a landing system yet to be tried on Mars) had already been decided upon before the Mars Pathfinder made its successful landing on Mars. According to Hubbard, missions will now be planned on 4 year centers such that NASA can learn from one mission and apply this lessons to another in time for the mission to be adjusted accordingly. This also allows NASA to recover more easily from a failure. Farouz Naderi, Mars Program Manager at JPL, added that NASA does not want to “overwhelm new missions with new technology that can cause it to be too risky.”

The Plan: Near Term

The mission profile laid out by NASA begins with the 2001 Mars orbiter which was already scheduled to be flown. Now dubbed “2001 Mars Odyssey”, this spacecraft is designed to conduct a study of the elemental composition of Mars. It is scheduled for launch on 7 April 2001 and will arrive at Mars on 20 October 2001. After using rockets to place itself into a 25-hour capture orbit, the spacecraft will use aerobraking over the next 76 days to achieve its planned 2-hour science orbit.

The goals of this mission, according to NASA JPL is to: globally map the elemental composition of the surface; acquire high spatial and spectral resolution of the surface mineralogy; determine the abundance of hydrogen in the shallow subsurface; provide information on the morphology of the Martian surface; determine the nature of local surface geologic processes from surface morphology; and characterize the Martian surface radiation environment as related to radiation-induced risk to human explorers; characterize specific aspects of the Mars near-space radiation environment complementary to surface measurements.

Mars RoverNext in the plan will be the twin rovers in 2003. Building upon the experience gained from the Sojourner/Pathfinder mission, these rovers will be much larger and will have the capability to roam for up to a half mile. The first rover mission will be launched on 22 May 2003 and arrive at Mars on 2 January 2004. The second rover will be launched on 4 June 2003 and arrive on Mars on 20 January 2004. The rovers will be near identical twins and will be based upon the Athena rover design developed by Cornell University and JPL. The design, construction and integration of these rovers and their carrier spacecraft will be done in house at NASA JPL and Cornell.

According to NASA “the goal of both rovers will be to learn about ancient water and climate on Mars.” When the twin rover missions were announced there was some concern over where the additional funds would come from. According to a 10 August 2000 NASA press release ” Given the high priority NASA and the administration assign to the space science program overall, and to the timely exploration of Mars, the agency proposes that space science cover any additional costs of the first rover mission, and that the bulk of the cost for the second lander be reallocated from programs outside Space Science.”

In 2005, NASA will launch a large orbiter roughly the size of the Mars Global Surveyor (which is still returning data from Mars orbit). Dubbed the “Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter”, the spacecraft will provide an order of magnitude increase in the resolution of surface detail allowing objects as small as 8-12 inches (20 – 30 cm) in size. This will not only allow a thorough understanding of the very fine detail of the Martian surface, it will also be of great use in planning the subsequent series of landers and choosing their landing sites. This mission will not be done in-house at NASA but will be openly competed instead. Mars Program Scientist Jim Garvin likened this increase in resolution as being similar to “going from a hand lens to a microscope from orbit.”

Smart LanderThe scope of NASA’s plans increases in 2007 when a very large rover touches down. The rover will be brought to the surface by a so-called “smart lander” equipped with advanced targeting sensors and software. The rover will be many times the size of the 2003 rovers with a payload capacity of perhaps 600 pounds on instrumentation. The scale of this rover is so large that it is referred to as a “mobile science laboratory” by NASA.

After the 2007 rover, things are a bit more diffuse and undecided. This is intentional so as to allow the program to adapt and evolve as missions succeed or fail.

The Plan: Down the Road

While NASA’s orbiter/rover missions are underway a second line of missions will be gin. Starting in 2007 a series of “Scout” missions will begin. The exact nature of these missions will depend upon proposals received from the scientific community. These missions will be similar to the current Discovery class of science emissions in scope and budget plan. While no specific Scout missions have been selected, NASA showed slides at the 26 October press conference of a small lander, a Mars balloon, and a Mars airplane as general examples of what might be proposed.

NASA’s cooperation with other countries will also start to take form around 2007. France recently announced that it had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NASA regarding future Mars missions. Another MOU with Italy is also in the works. One concept currently circulating about US/French collaboration centers around France’s proposed Net Landers which would also demonstrate aerocapture techniques. Meanwhile, concepts focused on a communications orbiter to act as a relay of sorts between Earth and Mars are being discussed with Italy.

As Weiler mentioned, as plans reach out beyond 2007, the specific mission concepts become a bit more general. What direction they will take will depend upon the success of the previous orbiters and landers – but also on what results these missions send back. Weiler suggested that one of these missions might be an orbiter with an advanced ground penetrating radar (possibly in 2009) designed to follow up upon the radar to be carried on the upcoming ESA Mars Express mission.

Sample Return Revisited

NASA’s previous Mars plans ended abruptly with several Mars Sample Return missions in 2005 and 2007. The new plan calls for a MSR mission to be launched in 2014 and a second in 2016 although one could be launched as early as 2011. The driver in selecting the dates will be not only results sent back from previous probes, but the ability to assemble the right sensor packages and demonstrate the various technologies required to assure that such a complex mission can obtain a sample from a desirable location on Mars, launch it from Mars, return it to Earth, and do so while assuring absolute integrity of biocontainment of the sample.

NASA’s earlier plans, as mentioned by Weiler and others, focused on an end point – sample return. It also put that goal on a fast track and had a schedule in place wherein there was very little room for failure, and little flexibility with regard to technology demonstration. Several years ago, when budgets got tight, the original plan for an all-in-one sample return mission was scrapped due to cost and a complicated plan that would cost less was developed instead. This plan involved one mission’s rovers finding rocks, another mission landing and collecting the rocks and then launching the sample into orbit to wait for yet a third mission to pick it up and return the sample to Earth.

This approach had the benefit of spreading the cost, but it also led to a much more complex mission profile – one that required three missions to be launched and perform successfully. Moreover it involved never before demonstrated technologies including orbital rendezvous and docking -all automated wherein a spacecraft captured a grapefruit sized sample container in Mars orbit.

While NASA has not taken the opposite, and equally risky approach of expecting one mission to accomplish all of the tasks, it did show a video wherein a sample is rocketed off of the surface of Mars and return more or less directly to Earth. The sample size would be in the range of 1-2 kg. NASA said that it plans to conduct a sample return campaign wherein samples are returned from a variety of locations – both in terms of geology (poles, flow features) but also stratigraphy (surface rocks, soil samples, deposits from beneath the surface, and frozen materials).

Searching for Life

When asked why no direct life detecting experiments were mentioned, Jim Garvin provided a long and detailed defense of NASA’s plan citing the fact that the search for past and extant water, and a global mineralogical and geochemical analysis of Mars would help determine the inventory of materials required for life as well a potential abodes for fossils – or perhaps existing life forms.

Garvin also noted that it was (in his opinion) the consensus of the astrobiology community that “life’s signatures” were not yet that well defined – thus making the detection of life – especially life that might be very different than terrestrial life – problematic.

Garvin did say however that there was room on the missions for life detecting experiments, and that proposals may well be received for the Scout class missions which would search for life.

Mars Needs Money

This is all going to cost money. When asked to profile the budget run out, Scott Hubbard and Ed Weiler said that the current plan has a 5 year budget forecast based upon the OMB budget cycle which is set at between $400 – 450 million per year. The twin rovers will cost about $300 million each, the Scout class missions are in the same range as Discovery class missions i.e. $300 million each, and the Mars Sample Return missions are in the $1 – 2 billion rage.

In citing these numbers, Weiler was rather stern in his admonition that the out year’s budgets are not at all firm and that he really did not want to give the press the impression that NASA had the budgets worked out in great detail a decade in the future. “We are not so smart here in 2000 to be able to tell you what the cost of an ’09 mission is. We made that mistake before and we won’t do it again.”

Whether this plan is actually implemented will depend on the next administration. The 2001 Orbiter is more or less on track and ready to go. Everything else is still dependent upon future budgets. Al Gore has supported a robotic exploration plan for Mars – no departure form the Clinton/Gore approach. George Bush seems to support NASA’s current robotic approach as well and has hinted at something more. Congress has also been supportive. Given that NASA seems to have taken most of the advisory committee reports and Congressional oversight into account in developing these plans, there shouldn’t be too many terrestrial roadblocks. As for what Mars decides to throw in our path ….

Mars: Robots -Yes; Humans – Not Yet.

Editor’s note: With the notable exception of characterizing potential landing sites and developing more precise means of landing spacecraft, the new plan seeks only to characterize the planet – with robots. It does little to directly prepare the way for human missions. In situ propellant production, once planned for demonstration on Mars, seems to have fallen of NASA’s Mars menu.

When asked where the linkage to human missions was in this plan, NASA was not really able to answer. Scott Hubbard said simply that he “had no idea”. This is, of course understandable since the current Administration has been consistent in its avoidance of any talk of sending humans to Mars and has repeatedly warned NASA not to give people the impression that such a plan might be forthcoming. Multiple attempts by NASA JSC and elsewhere at NASA to interest the Administration in even the most rudimentary humans to Mars research have fallen upon an uninterested audience.

The net result of NASA’s dual Mars failures has been both humbling and stimulating. The pace of NASA’s plan is still aggressive, but it now has more flexibility herein failures can be compensated for and new discoveries and technologies can be integrated into the program at multiple points. It also has some built-in flexibility for exploration past the old sample return endpoint.

However successful these missions eventually are – and there are certainly some very exciting things in store for Mars within this plan – this plan is still only a half-hearted commitment to the complete exploration of Mars. Robots and satellites have clear advantages. They also have their limits. The only plan wherein we truly come to understand Mars – not as just a planetary specimen – but as a world unto itself – is one where human presence is an integral part of the plan.

Mars Missions

° NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, NASA JPL

Mars Pathfinder

° Mars Global Surveyor, NASA JPL

° Mars Climate Orbiter, NASA JPL

° Mars Polar Lander, NASA JPL

° 2001 Mars Odyssey, NASA JPL

Mars News from the past year

° Whole Mars Catalog News

° 19 October 2000: NASA Outlines Mars Exploration Program for the Next Two Decades , NASA

° 19 October 2000: Bacterial Species 2-9-3 Resurrected after a Quarter of a Billion Years, SpaceRef

° 20 August 2000: Arctic and Antarctic Analogs for Liquid Water on Mars, SpaceRef

° 27 June 2000: British Researchers Try to Challenge Evidence of Mars Meteorite Fossils – But Don’t Make Their
, SpaceRef

° 27 June 2000: NASA Makes Mars 2003 Mission Selection, SpaceRef

° 25 June 2000: Mars Once Had Salty Oceans – Just Like Earth. , SpaceRef

° 22 June 2000: Mars May Be Even Wetter Than It Was Last Week, SpaceRef

° 22 June 2000: Mars, Like Earth, is not a Simple Planet to Understand, SpaceRef

° 12 May 2000: NASA Will Either Land or Orbit Mars in 2003 – But Not Both, SpaceRef

° 12 April 2000: NASA Advisors Explain Mars Mission Failures to a Concerned Congress, SpaceRef

° 28 March 2000: NASA Reveals Probable Cause of Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space-2 Mission Failures, SpaceRef

° 13 March 2000: Testimony of Thomas Young, Chairman of the Mars Program Independent Assessment Team before the House Science Committee, NASA

° 13 March 2000: Two Mars Mission Reports Delivered to NASA; A Third to Follow, SpaceRef

° 20 February 2000: Mars Exploration: AAAS Ponders: “Where do we go from here?”, SpaceRef

° 17 January 2000: NASA Concludes All Attempts to Communicate with Lander, NASA

° 7 January 2000: Mars Program Independent Assessment Team Begins Work, NASA

° 4 December 1999: Mars Polar Lander Mission Status, NASA JPL

° 30 November 1999: Mars Polar Lander Mission Status, NASA JPL

° 10 November 1999: Mars Climate Orbiter Failure Board Releases Report, Numerous NASA Actions Underway in Response

° 30 September 1999: Mars Climate Orbiter Team Finds Likely Cause of Loss, NASA

° 20 September 1999: Mars Climate Orbiter to Arrive at Mars This Week, NASA

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.