Once every 15 years Earth and Mars reach points in their orbit that bring them as close as possible, making for a fast and fuel-efficient transit between planets. One of these rare close encounters will come in 2018, and NASA doesn't want to let the opportunity pass by.
On Friday, April 13, the space agency issued a call for papers to determine the mission's objectives. Proposals will be submitted to and considered by the newly established Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) that is responsible for assisting the agency in developing a new strategy for the exploration of the Red Planet. The deadline is May 10 and the final decision will be announced sometime in August.
This exercise in openness is a reaction to the recent budget cuts that forced NASA to withdraw from the ESA-based ExoMars mission, and the public fallout the agency dealt with. The hope is for public involvement to increase awareness for the mission, and put Mars back in the spotlight. The MPPG is even releasing software and social media tools soon to reach the Facebook and Twitter addicted portion of Americans.
Many missions spread over many years would have seen ExoMars return the first Martian samples to Earth. Now, NASA has had to slim down its expectations - a sample return mission isn't feasible in the short-term given new budgetary constraints. Nevertheless, the overarching goal behind these robotic missions remains a manned mission to Mars.
So far there aren't any parameters for the 2018 mission; it could be an orbiter or a lander. The only constraint is cost. It can't be any more expensive than the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) satellite NASA is planning to launch next year. Currently, MAVEN's price tag is around $625 million.
When planning the 2018 mission, NASA will take into consideration proposals that change based on the data coming back from the Mars Science Laboratory's rover Curiosity, which is expected to land on Aug. 6. Included in MSL's science payload is a sensor package designed to measure the effects of ground radiation and ionization to predict the effects of humans walking on the surface, and soil analysis instruments to determine what on Mars might be toxic to astronauts. Sensors in the MSL aeroshell (the body that will protect Curiosity during atmospheric entry) will send back turbulence data vital to designing heavy manned landers.
NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati describes space exploration a universally human endeavor. "Exploring worlds other than our own is inherently a shared endeavor," he said. "The people of Earth looking to other planets and beyond is not something that's the purview of just one nation." His words seem perfectly selected to lend support to a publicly sourced mission.
Image: Artist's impression of the entry of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (NASA/JPL-Caltech)