Is NASA Changing Course On Mars Exploration?

With an increasing number of companies and countries proposing missions to Mars, NASA may be changing how it conducts its missions there. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS

With rival companies SpaceX and United Launch Alliance making serious plans to get to Mars, NASA’s future role in the exploration of Mars may be about to change. As it stands now, NASA is the only organization to have a successful mission to Mars under its belt. But with private companies in the USA, and organizations from other countries setting their sights on Mars, NASA is beginning to re-think how it does things.

NASA’s Mars missions work like this: individual teams of scientists propose payloads designed to study a particular aspect of Mars. The instruments are then built into the overall design of the rover, or orbiter, then that same team of scientists manages that instrument and collects the data.

Obviously, this has worked well in the past. But the context of Martian exploration is changing. China and the European Space Agency both have plans to send rovers to Mars, and United Arab Emirates plans to send an orbiter. While NASA has been sending a steady stream of missions to Mars, there is only one more planned, the Mars 2020 Rover.

SpaceX plans to begin sending their Dragon landers to Mars starting in 2018, though the first one will not be manned. A short time ago the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, announced even more ambitious plans for travel to Mars. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System is designed to allow a permanent human colony on Mars. The proposed timeline is ambitious, with the first cargo-only flight launching no sooner than 2022, and the first trip carrying humans launching during the next Earth-Mars window about 2 years later.

Not to be outdone, rival company United Launch Alliance, (a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) recently announced that they think they can get to Mars even sooner. At The Atlantic’s “What’s Next” conference, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said “I’m convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.”

Those are bold words, for sure. Boastful, even. But Boeing has a track record of success when it comes to space flight, having developed or co-developed projects like the Saturn-V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. (Incidentally, the Saturn-V rockets remains the most powerful rocket ever built. But not for much longer.) As for SpaceX, they have a growing track record of success themselves.

So where does this game of Martian one-upmanship leave NASA?

“The era that we all know and love and embrace is really coming to an end.”

The head of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is Jim Watzin. On October 6th he told a meeting of the Mars advisory group that “The era that we all know and love and embrace is really coming to an end. It’s important to recognize that the future is not going to be the same as the past.”

The words sound a little foreboding, perhaps. But they don’t signal an end to NASA’s exploration of Mars so much as a change in the model of how that exploration is done. And the new model may closely resemble how telescope observing time is doled out on both terrestrial telescopes and space telescopes.

With telescopes, astronomers submit detailed requests for observing time, outlining how much time they need and what they’d like to study. A committee looks over all the proposals and decides how the telescope time will be allocated. That model has been very successful.

Future NASA Mars exploration missions would work in a similar way. An orbiter would have a suite of instruments, and planetary scientists would submit proposals to use those instruments for periods of time to study certain things.

“I’m not trying to fix something that’s broken.”

“I’m not trying to fix something that’s broken,” Watzin said. “I’m trying to open the door to a larger level of collaboration and participation than we have today, looking to the fact that we’re going to have a larger pool of stakeholders involved in our missions.”

It’s important to note that there is no official change in NASA policy at this time. It’s just an idea. At the same meeting of the Mars advisory group, planetary scientist Jeffrey Johnson, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said “The idea right now needs to be fleshed out.” He added, “It’s a little early yet to figure out how the community is going to respond.”

“We’ve managed to do all the things [Watzin] described already without a new paradigm.”

But the community has already begun to respond, and not everyone is enthusiastic about this potential change. Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, told that “We’ve managed to do all the things [Watzin] described already without a new paradigm.”

McEwen would know. He is the Principal Investigator the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRise Camera. “We have distributed operations, we have multiple customers, we have a foreign contributed instrument. So my immediate reaction to this idea was not very positive,” McEwen said.

The playing field on Mars is definitely changing, though, and what has more or less been a NASA monopoly on Mars is changing. With more countries heading to Mars, and with private companies leading the charge, change is most definitely coming to Martian exploration. Whether this specific “time-share “model of investigation is adopted, or some other model, don’t expect NASA to sit idly by and keep doing things the same way.

Sources: NASA rethinks approach to Mars exploration

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JPL Predicts Mars’ Global Dust Storm To Arrive Within Weeks

These two images from the camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor show the effect that a global dust storm has on Mars. On the left is a normal view of Mars, on the right is Mars obscured by the haze from a dust storm. Image: NASA/JPL/MSSS

Our ability to forecast the weather here on Earth has saved countless lives from the onslaught of hurricanes and typhoons. We’ve gotten better at predicting space weather, too, and that has allowed us to protect sensitive satellites and terrestrial facilities from bursts of radiation and solar wind. Now, it looks as though we’re getting closer to predicting bad weather on Mars.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is forecasting the arrival of a global dust storm on Mars within weeks. The storm is expected to envelop the red planet, and reduce the amount of solar energy available to NASA’s rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity. The storm will also make it harder for orbiters to do their work.

Dust storms are really the only type of weather that Mars experiences. They’re very common. Usually, they’re only local phenomena, but sometimes they can grow to effect an entire region. In rarer cases, they can envelop the entire globe.

It’s these global storms that concern James Shirley, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. Shirley published a study showing that there is a pattern to these global storms. If his forecasted storm appears on time, it means that he has correctly determined that pattern.

“Mars will reach the midpoint of its current dust storm season on October 29th of this year. Based on the historical pattern we found, we believe it is very likely that a global dust storm will begin within a few weeks or months of this date,” Shirley said.

Predicting these huge dust storms will be of prime importance when humans gain a foothold on Mars. The dust could wreak havoc on sensitive systems, and can limit the effectiveness of solar power for weeks at a time.

But it’s not just future endeavours that are impacted by Martian dust storms. Spirit and Opportunity had to batten down the hatches when a global dust storm interrupted their exploration of Mars in 2007.

“We had to take special measures to enable their survival for several weeks with little sunlight to keep them powered.

John Callas is JPL’s project manager for Spirit and Opportunity. He describes the precautions that his team took during the 2007 dust storm: “We had to take special measures to enable their survival for several weeks with little sunlight to keep them powered. Each rover powered up only a few minutes each day, enough to warm them up, then shut down to the next day without even communicating with Earth. For many days during the worst of the storm, the rovers were completely on their own.”

We have observed 9 global dust storms on Mars since the first time in 1924, with the most recent one being the 2007 storm that threatened Spirit and Opportunity. Other storms were observed in 1977, 1982, 1994, and 2001. There’ve been many more of them, but we weren’t able to see them without orbiters and current telescope technology. And Earth hasn’t always been in a good position to view them.

Global dust storms have left their imprint on the early exploration of Mars. In 1971, NASA’s Mariner 9 orbiter reached Mars, and was greeted by a global dust storm that made it impossible to image the planet. Only two weeks later, the Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions arrived at Mars, and sent their landers to the surface.

Mars 2 crashed into the planet and was destroyed, but Mars 3 made it to the surface and landed softly. That made Mars 3 the first craft to land on Mars. However, it failed after only 14.5 seconds, likely because of the global dust storm. So not only was Mars 3 the first craft to land on Mars, it was also the first craft to be destroyed by a global dust storm.

If we had been able to forecast the global dust storm of 1971, Mars 3 may have been a successful mission. Who knows how that may have changed the history of Martian exploration?

James Shirley’s paper shows a pattern in global dust storms on Mars based on the orbit of Mars, and on the changing momentum of Mars as the gravity of other planets acts on it.

Mars takes about 1.8 years to orbit the Sun, but its momentum change caused by other planets’ gravity is in a 2.2 year cycle. The relationship between these two cycles is always changing.

What Shirley found is that global dust storms occur while Mars’ momentum is increasing during the first part of the dust storm season. When looking back at our historical record of Martian global dust storms, he found that none of them occurred in years when the momentum was decreasing during the first part of the dust storm season.

Shirley’s paper found that current conditions on Mars are also very similar to other times when global dust storms occurred. Since we are much more capable of watching Mars than at any time in the past, we should be able to quickly confirm if Shirley’s understanding of Martian weather is correct.

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15 Days To Mars: Schiaparelli & The Problematic History Of Martian Landings

NASA's MSL Curiosity. NASA is the only agency to successfully place a lander on Mars. This self portrait shows Curiosity doing its thing on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

We may be living in the Golden Age of Mars Exploration. With multiple orbiters around Mars and two functioning rovers on the surface of the red planet, our knowledge of Mars is growing at an unprecedented rate. But it hasn’t always been this way. Getting a lander to Mars and safely onto the surface is a difficult challenge, and many landers sent to Mars have failed.

The joint ESA/Roscosmos Mars Express mission, and its Chiaparelli lander, is due at Mars in only 15 days. Now’s a good time to look at the challenges in getting a lander to Mars, and also to look back at the many failed attempts.

For now, NASA has the bragging rights as the only organization to successfully land probes on Mars. And they’ve done it several times. But they weren’t the first ones to try. The Soviet Union tried first.

The USSR sent several probes to Mars starting back in the 1960s. They made their first attempt in 1962, but that mission failed to launch. That failure illustrates the first challenge in getting a craft to land on Mars: rocketry. We’re a lot better at rocketry than we were back in the 1960’s, but mishaps still happen. The recent explosion of one of SpaceX’s rockets shows that to be true.

Then in 1971, the Soviets sent a pair of probes to Mars called Mars 2 and Mars 3. They were both orbiters with detachable landers destined for the Martian surface. The fate of Mars 2 and Mars 3 provides other illustrative examples of the challenges in getting to Mars.

Mars 2 separated from its orbiter successfully, but crashed into the surface and was destroyed. The crash was likely caused by its angle of descent, which was too steep. This interrupted the descent sequence, which meant the parachute failed to deploy. So Mars 2 has the dubious distinction of being the first man-made object to reach Mars.

Mars 3 was exactly the same as Mars 2. The Soviets liked to do missions in pairs back then, for redundancy. Mars 3 separated from its orbiter and headed for the Martian surface, and through a combination of aerodynamic breaking, rockets, and parachutes, it became the first craft to make a soft landing on Mars. So it was a success, sort of.

But after only 14.5 seconds of data transmission, it went quiet and was never heard from again. The cause was likely an intense dust storm. In an odd turn of events, NASA’s Mariner 9 orbiter reached Mars only days before Mars 2 and 3, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. It captured images of the planet-concealing dust storms, above which only the volcanic Olympus Mons could be seen. These images provided an explanation for the failure of Mars 3.

In 1973, the Soviets tried again. They sent four craft to Mars, two of which were landers, named Mars 6 and Mars 7. Mars 6 failed on impact, but Mars 7’s fate was perhaps a little more tragic. It missed Mars completely, by about 1300 km, and is in a helicentric orbit to this day. In our day and age, we just assume that our spacecraft will go where we want them to, but Mars 7 shows us that it can all go wrong. After all, Mars is a moving target.

In the 1970s, NASA was fresh off the success of their Apollo Program, and were setting their sites on Mars. They developed the Viking program which saw 2 landers, Viking 1 and Viking 2, sent to Mars. Both of them were probe/lander configurations, and both landers landed successfully on the surface of Mars. The Vikings sent back beautiful pictures of Mars that caused excitement around the world.

In 1997, NASA’s Martian Pathfinder made it to Mars and landed successfully. Pathfinder itself was stationary, but it brought a little rover called Sojourner with it. Sojourner explored the immediate landing area around Pathfinder. Sojourner became the first rover to operate on another planet.

Pathfinder was able to send back over 16,000 images of Mars, along with its scientific data. It was also a proof of concept mission for technologies such as automated obstacle avoidance and airbag mediated touchdown. Pathfinder helped lay the groundwork for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. That means Spirit and Opportunity.

But after Pathfinder, and before Spirit and Opportunity, came a time of failure for Martian landing attempts. Everybody took part in the failure, it seems, with Russia, Japan, the USA, and the European Space Agency all experiencing bitter failure. Rocket failures, engineering errors, and other terminal errors all contributed to the failure.

Japan’s Nozomi orbiter ran out of fuel before ever reaching Mars. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander failed its landing attempt. NASA’s Deep Space 2, part of the Polar Lander mission, failed its parachute-less landing and was never heard from. The ESA’s Beagle 2 lander made it to the surface, but two of its solar panels failed to deploy, ending its mission. Russian joined in the failure again, with its Phobos-Grunt mission, which was actually headed for the Martian moon Phobos, to retrieve a sample and send it back to Earth.

In one infamous failure, engineers mixed up the use of English units with Metric units, causing NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter to burn up on entry. These failures show us that failure is not rare. It’s difficult and challenging to get to the surface of Mars.

After this period of failure, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers were both unprecedented successes. They landed on the Martian surface in January 2004. Both exceeded their planned mission length of three months, and Opportunity is still going strong now.

So where does that leave us now? NASA is the only one to have successfully landed a rover on Mars and have the rover complete its mission. But the ESA and Russia are determined to get there.

The Schiaparelli lander, as part of the ExoMars mission, is primarily a proof of technology mission. In fact, its full name is the Schiaparelli EDM lander, meaning Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module.

It will have some small science capacity, but is really designed to demonstrate the ability to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend safely, and finally, to land on the surface. In fact, it has no solar panels or other power source, and will only carry enough battery power to survive for 2-8 days.

Schiaparelli faces the same challenges as other craft destined for Mars. Once launched successfully, which it was, it had to navigate its way to Mars. That took about 6 months, and since ExoMars is only 15 days away from arrival at Mars, it looks like it has successfully made its way their. But perhaps the trickiest part comes next: atmospheric entry.

Schiaparelli is like most Martian craft. It will make a ballistic entry into the Martian atmosphere, and this has to be done right. There is no room for error. The angle of entry is the key here. If the angle is too steep, Schiaparelli may overheat and burn up on entry. On the other hand, if the angle is too shallow, it could hit the atmosphere and bounce right back into space. There’ll be no second chance.

The entry and descent sequence is all pre-programmed. It will either work or it won’t. It would take way too long to send any commands to Schiaparelli when it is entering and descending to Mars.

If the entry is successful, the landing comes next. The exact landing location is imprecise, because of wind speed, turbulence, and other factors. Like other craft sent to Mars, Schiaparelli’s landing site is defined as an ellipse.

The lander will be travelling at over 21,000 km/h when it reaches Mars, and will have only 6 or 7 minutes to descend. At that speed, Schiaparelli will have to withstand extreme heating for 2 or 3 minutes. It’s heat shield will protect it, and will reach temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius.

It will decelerate rapidly, and at about 10km altitude, it will have slowed to approximately 1700 km/h. At that point, a parachute will deploy, which will further slow the craft. After the parachute slows its descent, the heat shield will be jettisoned.

On Earth, a parachute would be enough to slow a descending craft. But with Mars’ less dense atmosphere, rockets are needed for the final descent. An onboard radar will monitor Schiaparelli’s altitude as it approaches the surface, and rockets will fire to slow it to a few meters per second in preparation for landing.

In the final moments, the rockets will stop firing, and a short free-fall will signal Schiaparelli’s arrival on Mars. If all goes according to plan, of course.

We won’t have much longer to wait. Soon we’ll know if the ESA and Russia will join NASA as the only agencies to successfully land a craft on Mars. Or, if they’ll add to the long list of failed attempts.

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Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/ Di Lorenzo

A “beautiful dust devil” was just discovered today, April 1, on the Red Planet by NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover as she is simultaneously exploring water altered rock outcrops at the steepest slopes ever targeted during her 13 year long expedition across the Martian surface. Opportunity is searching for minerals formed in ancient flows of water that will provide critical insight into establishing whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

“Yes a beautiful dust devil on the floor of Endeavour Crater,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed to Universe Today. Spied from where “Opportunity is located on the southwest part of Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley.

The new dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – is seen scooting across the ever fascinating Martian landscape in our new photo mosaic illustrating the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley overlooking the crater floor as Opportunity makes wheel tracks at the current worksite on a crest at Knudsen Ridge. The colorized navcam camera mosaic combines raw images taken today on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. They are associated with prior periods of solar array cleansing power boosts that contributed decisively to her longevity.

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

Starting in late January, scientists commanded the golf cart sized Opportunity to drive up the steepest slopes ever attempted by any Mars rover in order to reach rock outcrops where she can conduct breakthrough science investigations on smectite clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“We are beginning an imaging and contact science campaign in an area where CRISM spectra show evidence for deep absorptions associated with Fe [Iron], Mg [Magnesium] smectites.

The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

So the ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on the CRISM data.

At this moment, the rover is driving to an alternative rock outcrop located on the southwest area of the Knudsen Ridge hilltops after trying three times to get within reach of the clay minerals by extending her instrument laden robotic arm.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the rover kept slipping on the steep walled slopes – tilted as much as 32 degrees – while repeatedly attempting close approaches to the intended target. Ultimately she came within 3 inches of the surface science target ‘Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’ – named after a member of the Corps of Discovery.

In fact despite rotating her wheels enough to push uphill about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, engineers discerned from telemetry that slippage was so great that “the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short,” said NASA.

“The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.”

NASA officials noted that “the previous record for the steepest slope ever driven by any Mars rover was accomplished while Opportunity was approaching “Burns Cliff” about nine months after the mission’s January 2004 landing on Mars.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity is currently driving downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

Offering more than just a pretty view, the dust devils actually have been associated with springtime Martian winds that clear away the dust obscuring the robots life giving solar panels.

“Opportunity is largely in winter mode sitting on a hill side getting maximum power. But it is in a better power status than in many past winters,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, told Universe Today exclusively.

“I think I know the reason. As one looks across the vistas of Mars in this mosaic Oppys best friend is on its way.”

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover. Even I have a smile on my face when I see what’s coming.”

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 207,600 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production has climbed to 576 watt-hours, now just past the depths of southern hemisphere Martian winter.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the basal layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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NASA’s Journey to Mars Ramps Up with InSight, Key Tests Pave Path to 2016 Lander Launch

NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ is ramping up significantly with ‘InSight’ – as the agency’s next Mars lander has now been assembled into its flight configuration and begun a comprehensive series of rigorous environmental stress tests that will pave the path to launch in 2016 on a mission to unlock the riddles of the Martian core. […]

Weekly Space Hangout – May 29, 2015: Dr. Bradley M. Peterson

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: This week we welcome Dr. Bradley M. Peterson, whose research is directed towards determination of the physical nature of active galactic nuclei. Guests: Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / Charles Black (@charlesblack / Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg ) […]