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Scientists are concerned about the long-term future of NASA's Mars exploration program



WASHINGTON – While NASA is preparing a decade-long effort to return samples from Mars, some scientists worry that the campaign may not leave any funding available for others more robotic missions on the planet.

NASA's only future mission to Mars under development is Mars 2020, a rover currently in its final assembly phase and scheduled to launch in July 2020. The rover, based on the Curiosity rover on Mars in seven years, will marry Martian rock and earth samples for later return to Earth.

While NASA has not formally focused on the additional missions needed to retrieve the samples and return them to Earth, both NASA and the European Space Agency have begun planning for them. This approach includes a mission led by NASA to reach Mars, retrieve samples and launch them into orbit around the planet, and an ESA-led mission to retrieve the sample container in orbit and restore this on Earth. Both missions will be launched in 2026, bringing the samples back to 2031

.

But as attendees at a meeting last month of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) in Pasadena, California, it was mentioned, almost nothing else. Mars robotic missions thrive. The only exception is Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics explorers (EscaPADE), a proposed smallsat mission to study the interaction of solar wind with the Martian environment selected by NASA in June as part of a new planetary program on the small planet. NASA is funding additional EscaPADE studies, but there is no guarantee that the mission will be approved for development and launch. "Our highest priority is returning the sample to Mars, but we also have other priorities," R. Aileen Yingst, head of MEPAG, said in comments at the beginning of the July 26 meeting. the remaining scientific questions are consistent with, or as part of, sample returns. To date, no flight opportunities are expected that way. ”

He noted that in addition to a shortage of chief trees. groups like Mars 2020, scientists can't suggest medium-sized New Frontiers missions since then. Missions, while competing, are limited to only a few selected destinations that, for now, are excluding Mars. The smaller Discovery program, which also selects missions in a competition, can be used for Mars missions, such as the InSight lander. However, he said, "there is a problem that m will reach Mars under the cover of Discovery. "

" There is concern in the community that new data may not be available anytime soon, "he concludes. at the meeting, scientists asked NASA officials to attend about options to address it, such as flying additional science instruments in the sample back lander and orbiter mission launched in 2026.

Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said NASA would consider flying additional science payloads on missions ahead of their development. However, he argues that it does not fit the "lean" architecture of the Mars sample set announced nearly two years ago by Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's organization for science, which aims to make the sample return quickly and cheaply so it's not possible.

"That's the right decision," he said. Sample return missions face "very, very intense demands" to get to Mars and back. "Every time I add an extra kilogram of mass to that, it makes it harder and harder to solve the problem."

Some inquired about another orbiter to handle surface communications and other functions, such as imaging, given the age of existing orbits. Watzin said launching the other two parts of the sample return campaign in 2026 meant that there was a "reasonable possibility" that existing orbits would be able to operate somehow as communications relays.

As for an orbiter who did science, Watzin was more pessimistic. "Unfortunately we live in a world with tight budgets," he said, acknowledging the need for a new need for a new remote sensing mission to support science and, potentially, curiosity of people of the future.

"Do I have a plan today? No," he said of a new orbiter.


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