(ORDO NEWS) — Why are we going back to Mars again? NYT interviews two veterans of space journalism, trying to understand why so much attention and funding is being given to the Red Planet and not other objects in the solar system. Where else is it time to send a mission into our golden age of space exploration?
Three government agencies around the world are gearing up to return to Mars this summer. In addition to China and the United Arab Emirates, the United States is also planning to land NASA’s Perseverance rover on the red planet, along with a small experimental Ingenuity helicopter. However, the main task of this rover will be to detect and capture some samples that humans or robots will be able to deliver to Earth in the future.
The planetary scientific community will welcome these missions. However, many researchers began to ask this question louder and louder: why are we returning to Mars again? So we brought in Rebecca Boyle and David Brown, two journalists (who have spent much of their careers interviewing space explorers at both NASA and universities) to discuss why Mars, a planet that has long lost its atmosphere, is swallowing up, there seems to be so much oxygen – and budgetary resources – in the rooms and offices where questions about exploring our solar system are being tackled.
Rebecca Boyle: So we’re going back to Mars. And again we send another rover there. Probably even two if NASA and China’s missions are successful.
This is not to say that this is disappointing. But if you take NASA’s Perseverance mission, you get the feeling of déjà vu, something already seen and very similar to the successful mission of the Curiosity rover in 2011. I have written extensively about the importance of studying Mars, especially processes similar to our earthquakes, and this is of great importance to us. But even I have questions: What are we next in line in the process of studying the solar system? Are expeditions to Mars blocking other important directions in the study of outer space?
David Brown: The entire solar system awaits our explorers. Since 2001, NASA has sent eight consecutive missions to Mars, including five landing on the Red Planet. Humanity today has on its servers a whole library of data about Mars, but so far no one has had time to study all this accumulated array of information. On the other hand, the data obtained by spacecraft as a result of short encounters with the moons of Jupiter or with the ice giants Uranus and Neptune are “squeezed dry.”
Rebecca Boyle: And it made the story of Mars exploration a self-fulfilling project. The robots that we sent to Mars turned out to be, on the whole, extremely successful, and we received data on the large amount of water that existed on this planet before, including there were floodplains in which some life forms could appear on the surface. We also received information about ice caps on Mars, about carbon dioxide snow, about internal geology, about a thin atmosphere, and about the surface exposed to the destructive effects of winds.
Each new discovery about Mars raises new questions and the result is a healthy ecosystem for Mars exploration.
Some specialists take jobs in research centers, where they receive funding for graduate students and to continue research after defending a dissertation, and as a result, more and more questions about Mars arise. And so the exploration of the Red Planet continues.
However, in the past few years, the voices of those people who urge NASA to turn their eyes in the other direction have been growing louder. It could be Venus, or Titan, a satellite of Saturn, or the distant, faceless turquoise disk of Uranus’s orbit – just not Mars, anything but Mars, where we have been directing self-propelled robots for almost two decades.
David Brown: For years, NASA has viewed Mars as its own space program, with its own directions and priorities. Once every two years, some devices were sent towards the Red Planet. But then, starting in 2010, the Mars exploration program was included in NASA’s overall portfolio of planetary exploration due to funding cuts. Unexpectedly, other worlds were destroyed by the crimson Death Star.
The Curiosity rover has caused a budget overrun of nearly a billion dollars, and as a result other projects have lost some of their funding. The Perseverance mission project has also exceeded its budget, and if this continues, other missions sent to collect samples using rovers will do the same.
While there is much unclear about the plans to return samples – the next mission could be joint with the Europeans, or only NASA astronauts will fly to the Red Planet, or we will pay SpaceX to send its ship there – the planetary scientific community has already come to the conclusion that that this kind of multi-billion dollar “flagship” mission would have the highest priority.
This decision has already led to the abandonment of the construction of a spacecraft, which was supposed to be sent to orbit Europa, a satellite of Jupiter with possible seas (the cheaper Europa Clipper will be launched this decade). While the shock still lingered, NASA opted for the InSight lander, ditching the well-established and less expensive Discovery-class spacecraft, which was supposed to land like a boat on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, so that it could sail on it. seas of liquid methane.
Rebecca Boyle: Rest in Peace, Titan Mare Explorer. Meanwhile, amid debates among planetary researchers over how to fund their missions, some geologists have begun to look eagerly at Venus, the second planet farthest from the Sun.
Venus is roughly the same size as Earth, has a mountainous surface, and has an atmosphere. In addition, its orbit around the Sun is in a zone where temperatures are quite conducive to the formation of liquid water – and possibly even life.
“My doctoral dissertation was on volcanoes on Mars. I am involved in the development of three projects for Mars. This does not mean that I somehow underestimate Mars – it is an amazing world, – said Paul Byrne, planetary explorer at North Carolina State University. – but this is not the only wonderful world. ”
According to him, he has the opportunity to study the clouds of Venus and its atmosphere, since his teaching position at the university covers all of his salaries and all of his obligations. But the same cannot be said for other scientists who have to rely on grants and federally funded programs to collect data.
Even in other countries, Venus does not receive the attention that other worlds receive. Dr. Byrne informed me that his meetings last October in Moscow focused on future flights to Venus, including a project to create an enlarged and modernized Soviet lander – so far the only spacecraft operating on the surface of Venus ( the last of them, “Venus 12” worked for 110 minutes). Only two Russian geologists were present at this meeting.
“Among young Russian scientists, just like us, there are no traditions of studying Venus,” he said. – Projects for the study of this planet have not received the necessary support. Mars has drawn all the attention. According to him, those people who received funding to study Venus, with rare exceptions “have retired or are now engaged in other projects.
We know that there was water on Mars at some point in its history, but it has long been gone. In contrast, Venus may have had oceans very recently, existed much longer, and there may have been life for billions of years.
“Why aren’t we sending spacecraft there?” Byrne asks.
David Brown: It has long been time to send probes to study the upper atmosphere of Venus. Of course, after the completion of the space shuttle program, there is nothing in NASA’s portfolio (apart from SpaceX’s recent launch of a spacecraft to the International Space Station) that can be compared to the enthusiasm for a planetary science program.
Pluto’s New Horizons missions, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the stunning Juno images of Jupiter against a blue background – these NASA projects people talk about, and they talk about planetary science.
Perhaps the exception is the Hubble Space Telescope, which transmits so many stunning images that they are already becoming permanent vibrant elements of color cultural statics. We don’t even notice it anymore, which is a testament to the success of this program.
Rebecca Boyle: In my opinion, the same can be said about images of Mars, in a certain sense. We have been receiving them in living colors since the late 1990s, and they also became static in a certain sense. The Curiosity probe has a high-resolution camera, and people were captured by those incredible images that were obtained after its landing in 2012, but today they are almost completely ignored.
I previously checked for new images using a program called Midnight Planet, which was developed by programmer Michael Howard. He downloaded these images in their raw form as they were transmitted through the Deep Space Network antenna complex. It was very interesting to watch what these rovers saw, and it all happened in almost real time. However, Mr. Howard stopped updating his site almost a year ago and left this message: “I am now doing other projects in my life.”
I only discovered this because I first decided to check for updates after a hiatus of over a year. Wow, a statement, right? We are no longer delighted with images from Mars taken at night. From Mars!
The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars, was the first mission of its kind in the social media era, and has been watched by people around the world on Twitter, on television and in Times Square. It was amazing. But today there is no longer such a lot of attention.
Is this because Mars already looks sufficiently explored? For now, we have to be content with waiting for the public to react to the boat on Titan or something like that.
David Brown: At least, work is currently underway to create a quadcopter for the Titan. The problem for the rest of the solar system is that NASA’s H does not mean scientific. This National Aeronautics and Space Administration is primarily concerned with the preparation of manned space flights. This is where the main streams of money go, and robotic missions to Mars are the natural beneficiaries of this process. Astronauts cannot get to Europa, the moon of Jupiter using modern technology, and they cannot land on Venus. However, a man in a spacesuit can survive on Mars, which means that every direction of robots to Mars refers not only to obscure questions of geology or the study of aeolian deposits. In fact, every mission to Mars is preparation for human flight. Every dollar spent on rovers reduces the risks that astronauts will inevitably face in the future.
Culturally, Mars is very important to NASA, and it has been that way since the agency’s inception. The program for delivering a man to Mars, which was developed even before the Apollo program (Appollo), became a natural consequence of the implementation of the lunar program. To become a multi-planetary agency, NASA had to have reusable space shuttles, a space station, rockets at least as powerful as Saturn 5, and other infrastructure located in space. While the glorious days of funding the Apollo program no longer exist, the fundamental elements of Mars exploration still persist — all of these elements have been created, although significantly more time has been spent on it.
Rebecca Boyle: Another reason is private companies. It is enough just to send something to Mars – every 26 months this planet is on the same side in relation to the Sun as the Earth. And so the flight takes only six months.
On roughly the same timetable, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, is making a bold and vague announcement about his plans to launch cruise ships to Mars, which will house people who are likely to stay on this planet forever. A few years ago, a Dutch startup called Mars One tried to launch a reality show about the lives of settlers on the Red Planet, but it went bankrupt.
Although conditions on Mars are dire, it is the least unfavorable place, with the possible exception of the Moon. One gets the impression that Mars can be reached. And the human footprints left on the red regolith seem to be real. That is why, for several generations after the end of the Apollo program, we have again and again seen the tracks of tracked robots on the red regolith.
David Brown: In a sense, the Perseverance rover serves as a testament to the toughest criticism of the Mars exploration program. It was presented as relatively inexpensive and based on re-use of materials developed for the Curiosity rover, as well as for the lander, including using available spare parts, but with a different set of scientific instruments.
Ultimately, the Perseverance project budget was exceeded by more than $ 500 million – and another helicopter was added to this project!
Almost all units have been modernized. The rover now has different dimensions, and also received new wheels, chassis and camera. A spare heat shield was not even used. In terms of the cost of the work done, this ambitious upgrade is comparable to funding an entire Discovery-class mission, and this has caused problems with other major programs in NASA’s portfolio.
However, the Russian experience with Venus largely explains the need for NASA to expand engineering work on the Mars-related program. Stop the production of modules launched to Mars, stop the implementation of such daring projects as helicopters – all this means the loss of institutional knowledge necessary for the successful study of the Red Planet. The United States has been launching astronauts into space since 1961, but after we stopped flights, it took nearly a decade to figure out how to start doing it again.
Rebecca Boyle: The confusion and frustration with the Mars mission is a testament to a major existential struggle within NASA. As you said, NASA has always been the agency of astronauts, and manned flight training is its DNA. But when presidential administrations change research programs every four or eight years, it becomes more difficult to develop long-term plans. NASA needs some place to point spacecraft to, and Mars is the natural next step after the Moon.
However, this Authority and the country as a whole should probably ask this question: What do we really want in the future? Do we want to bring to Earth a piece of rock that will allow us to expand our knowledge of the early history of Mars? Or maybe we’ll be very lucky and can deliver a piece of rock with fossilized evidence of bacteria? Or is it simply additional evidence, including sedimentary layered rocks on Mars, that Mars is of sufficient interest to us, and it makes sense for humans to take risks in order to one day step on its surface?
David Brown: Long Term Programs are the power of Mars exploration in general, and the great mystery behind these missions. No one knows exactly when the samples collected by the Perseverance apparatus will be delivered to Earth. Perhaps these containers will be covered with red dust for 15 years, and only after that the robots will capture them and send them to Earth. The question of the existence of life on Mars – now or in the past – has been raised, rejected and re-discussed from the moment the Viking module landed in 1976 until the Curiosity rover discovered methane in 2019.
Perhaps the collected samples will provide an answer to this question, said to me Dr. Tim McCoy, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s meteorite collection, and the samples that NASA intends to obtain may eventually , turn out to be not very useful for science.
“How do we know what they will be able to tell us about the issues that will exist in 15 or 20 years?” – he asked. In his opinion, the planetary scientific community may move on to a completely different set of questions by the time the Martian mud is delivered to Earth’s laboratories.
Rebecca Boyle: I hope that the Perseverance spacecraft, when it starts to explore Mars, will find the most interesting rocks in the solar system. But we can only wait, while there are so many other places where we have not yet been.
I am a big believer in lunar exploration, and I would like us to go back there and take rock samples from the largest crater in the solar system, from the South Pole Basin – Aitken. I would like to witness the creation of a cloud city from spaceships orbiting Venus. And I, in fact, really want the project with this boat on Titan to be implemented.
David Brown: It’s time to send a flagship mission to Venus. The presence of conditions above its clouds, similar to those of the earth, makes the discovery of life there only a matter of time.
The ice giants deserve research, too, and ingenious missions like the Trident spacecraft to Triton, a satellite of Neptune, prove it can be done on relatively small budgets.
Today I like that there is little enthusiasm for landing a nuclear powered vehicle on Mars. In the 1980s, when funding problems forced the planetary scientific community to struggle to survive. And today we live in the golden age of space exploration.
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