(ORDO NEWS) — On the eve of the release of the 10-year Planetary Science Review, which is likely to focus less on Mars, scientists and NASA officials are considering how to continue exploring the planet with less expensive missions.
The National Academies are scheduled to release the last 10-year Planetary Science Review on April 19th. The report will set priorities for planetary science and astrobiology missions from 2023 to 2032.
The previous Decade Review of Planetary Sciences, published in 2011, recommended a rover that could store samples for later return to Earth as a top priority for large, or flagship, missions. NASA eventually implemented this recommendation under the name Mars 2020, and the Perseverance rover is currently assembling such samples.
The agency, speaking in late March in Pasadena, California, at a conference on low-cost options for missions to Mars, acknowledged that it is unlikely that another flagship mission to Mars will be the top priority of the new decade cycle.
Even if that were the case, the costs of the ongoing Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign that Perseverance has stored on Mars make it unlikely that the agency can afford another such a massive mission this decade.
“MSR will be NASA’s top priority for Mars in the coming years, and it seems unlikely that the next large-scale mission that the ten-year program recommends will target Mars,” said Eric Ianson, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, in his speech at the opening of the meeting.
“Therefore, there will be no funds in the budget to develop a Perseverance or MRO-level flagship mission,” the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission launched in 2005.
Another factor, he added, is NASA’s drive to send a man to Mars as early as the late 2030s. “Large science missions probably won’t be the number one priority,” he said.
Apart from MSR, the only major Mars mission announced by NASA is the International Mars Ice Mapper (I-MIM), a radar-equipped orbiter to search for subsurface ice deposits of interest to both scientists and planners for human exploration of Mars.
Canada, Italy and Japan will participate in the mission, with NASA having primary responsibility for mission management.
However, shortly before the conference, NASA’s FY 2023 Budget Proposal cut funding for I-MIM to zero. “Due to the need to fund higher priorities, including meeting the cost increases expected from the Mars Sample Return mission, the budget is ending NASA’s financial support for the Mars Ice Mapper,” the agency’s budget document says.
At the conference, Rick Davis, NASA’s I-MIM Program Manager, continued with the presentation of the mission, including how it could use solar arrays, as well as deploy a communications relay in Mars orbit to support other missions.
“We have several long-term programs, and these are very high priority programs. That is what prompted us to submit the budget,” he said, answering a question about the budget proposal, adding that it would be up to Congress to restore funding for the program.
“The main factor was the overall pressure on the budget across multiple projects,” Ianson said. “There is nothing unprecedented in the fact that the budget proposes to cut funding for any mission.”
However, he is skeptical about
At the conference, many hoped for small missions, both orbiters and landers, that could solve key scientific questions. Recent studies, one of which was carried out by the Mars Architecture Strategy Working Group (MASWG), concluded that low-cost missions to Mars are both feasible and useful.
Bruce Jakoski of the University of Colorado, who led the MASWG study, told the conference that there is potential for missions with a total life cycle cost of $100 million to $300 million. “We believe that missions in this range have the potential for outstanding scientific research,” he said.
He noted that there are several recent examples of such missions. Hope, a Martian orbiter launched by the United Arab Emirates in 2020, has an estimated cost of $200 million. NASA is also funding a $55 million small satellite mission to Mars called ESCAPADE, scheduled to launch in 2024.
Rob Lillis of the University of California, Berkeley, principal investigator for the ESCAPADE project, warned at the conference that his mission might not be applicable to other low-cost Mars mission concepts. The mission to study the interaction of the solar wind with the Martian atmosphere can use inexpensive instruments that do not require high data transfer rates.
“$55 million is too little for most realistic missions,” he said. “This is not the spending cap that is needed for missions to Mars in general.”
“The MASWG believes that opportunities for important scientific research will start at around $100 million,” he said. With a projected cost range of $100 million to $300 million, “we have a wide range of budgets that we can fit into.”
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