To Mars, to Mars
by Taylor Dinerman
|Realistically no US President is going to decide to send people to Mars anytime soon. Going to the Moon or to L-1 seems the best we can hope for.|
Everyone at NASA remembers the losses of the Mars Climate Observer and the Mars Polar Lander probes in 1999. Unlike the billion-dollar-plus Mars Observer that was lost in 1993, these probes combined cost only a few hundred million dollars. The space agency suffered just as serious a blow to its reputation when it lost the 1999 missions as when it lost the 1993 one. The successful Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner, and 2001 Mars Odyssey missions are seen as less important to the media than the failed missions. This is perfectly normal: the products of today’s journalism schools are taught to go negative whenever possible.
If these missions work as planned future missions will be easier to sell, but if not, space science advocates will find it harder than ever to make their case. The Japanese, who have lost their Nozomi probe and have suffered a major blow when they had to destroy their last H-2A rocket, will find it particularly hard to convince their public opinion to spend more on space exploration.
The European Mars Express/Beagle 2 mission is a first for ESA and is one of the few missions they are doing that conforms to their declared science and exploration role. In fact, given the cuts in space science this may be (along with Rosetta) one of the last classic European space missions. As ESA becomes more of a quasi-military organization and less of a scientific one probes such as these will be less common while their money and effort will go into projects such as Galileo and GMES.
The two US Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) named Spirit and Opportunity, that were launched in June and July of this year are going to reach their destinations next January 4th and 25th respectively. They will be landing using the parachute and airbag method pioneered by Pathfinder. It will be the second use of this technique and if it works it will probably become the standard method for landing probes of this size on any ‘accessible planetary surface’ larger than a small asteroid. These missions will show whether or not NASA has now mastered the art of landing robots on nearby planets.
|The search for life on Mars may prove a dead end. If that is true it will still be a worthwhile effort because it is teaching the space science community how to go about it.|
The rovers are more than twice as big and far heavier (175 versus 10 kilograms) than Sojourner. The MERs are independent and carry a much wider array of sensors and tools than the 1997 mission did. The most fascinating of these is the Rock Abrasion Tool, which will grind the surface of a few Martian rocks to see what is underneath. This should give the researchers a look at how the Martian atmosphere interacts with the local geology.
The main goal of these missions is to seek out water and, possibly, some form of life that may once have existed on Mars. There is a small chance that some very simple form of life may still exist on Mars. If so, the long-term Mars exploration programs may find it. The search for life on Mars may prove a dead end. If that is true it will still be a worthwhile effort because it is teaching the space science community how to go about it. Mars is not the only planet that needs to be checked out for life. Outside our Solar System there are, it seems, plenty of earthlike planets. Some day we may be in a position to examine them and the protocols we use on Mars will be the reference point for such research.
NASA plans to send additional missions to Mars in 2005, 2007 and 2009. It will be the most comprehensive study of another planet ever done. Such a series of missions only makes sense as a precursor for an eventual human trip. Mars has always been the logical goal of America’s space program. One way or another the US is going to someday send American astronauts to Mars. If the space agency in its current incarnation cannot do so then Americans, either the politicians or the private sector, will find a way to get us there.
For the moment NASA would do well just to get a pair of working robots onto the Martian surface. If this mission is successful they will have proven that at least one part of the agency is worthy of long-term support in its current unreformed state. The President may want to wait and see if these missions work out as planned before he commits publicly to any ambitious new space program. Opportunity will attempt its landing on January 25th and it will be a day or more before the experts at the JPL know if all is going to go well. It will only be after that news has been announced that a new goal for NASA can be safely proclaimed.