Mars Orbiter


The big question we are constantly asked is "Will there be life on Mars?" Whether or not evidence of biological life exists on the red planet it will surely be true that tremendous life has been given to the aerospace industry as it reaps major financial benefit from the exploration of Mars.

A whole series of Mars missions are right now underway. From the Pathfinder, that landed on Mars in 1997, to the current Global Surveyor mission that began orbiting and mapping Mars in March, 1999, the race to Mars is on.

In December 1998 the Climate Orbiter was launched and in January, 1999 the Polar Lander was successfully sent packing to Mars. Both missions, developed by Lockheed Martin Corporation, continue the program of surface mapping and soil identification.

NASA’s Mars exploration budget has more than doubled to $250 million per year, most of it earmarked for the ongoing missions to the planet.

In fact the missions are absorbing so much money that the European Space Agency (ESA), which is scheduled to be partners with NASA on a 2005 Mars Express mission, is having to reconsider their participation.

The Mars Express return is one of a series of missions beginning from 2001-2005 that will land rovers on the red planet and begin taking soil samples. The 2005 Mars Express would be the "sample return mission" and would cost the ESA over $165 million, plus the costs of the lander and the instruments. The problem is that ESA does not have the money to pay for Mars Express without canceling or delaying some other science satellites.

One solution American space officials are offering to the ESA concerning their budget conflicts was expressed in an editorial in Space News (March 29, 1999). The editorial stated that, "One way to find more money is to cut more from national programs. As long as space budgets remain tight in Europe, duplication of programs and bureaucracies should be eliminated wherever possible." Translated that means cut your social spending – national health care, social security, unemployment programs, etc.

According to NASA all of the Mars lander/rover/sample return missions are expected to use plutonium as a heat source.

An issue concerning the sample returns to Earth has emerged in the past year. According to Barry DiGregorio, founder of the International Committee Against Sample Return, "any Martian samples returned to Earth must be treated as biohazardous material until proven otherwise."

Mr. DiGregorio states that NASA has failed to create a special facility on Earth to contain any Martian material that might contain dangerous micro-organisms. "When the Spaniards began to explore the Americas, they brought with them the smallpox virus that killed tens of thousands of native inhabitants," DiGregorio says.

An environmental impact statement on the safety of returning samples from Mars must be performed by NASA before the project is allowed to move forward.

In Space News (June 9-15, 1997) it was reported that NASA intends to follow the sample return missions with manned missions to Mars. Cargo missions would first be sent beginning in 2007 and would deposit habitation modules on the surface of the planet. The modules would include two nuclear power plants, food, a laboratory, and a crew return vehicle.

Once all of these facilities had been successfully deposited, manned missions would follow. One of the problems with the manned Mars mission though is the length of time it takes for spacecraft to get to Mars. NASA, the Department of Energy laboratory at Los Alamos (New Mexico), and the nuclear engineering department at the University of Florida (Gainesville) are now working on the nuclear rocket, that would use nuclear powered engines to speed up the trip to Mars. NASA has acknowledged that the nuclear rocket is a "politically sensitive" issue.

But the aerospace industry believes that in order to complete the Mars program nuclear rockets are essential.

Robert Kleinberger, an aerospace engineer, recently wrote in Space News, that "The reusable nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) could be assembled and serviced by the crew of the international space station. An advanced NTR propulsion system could open a panorama of new flight trajectories throughout the inner solar system."

Kleinberger goes on to say that, "Building an NTR is justifiable for technology development alone, but there are many other ways such a spacecraft could prove useful. The NTR could be used for defending U.S. space systems, reboosting the international space station, returning to the moon for exploration or mining, and for exploring and opening the inner solar system to scientific research. The nuclear vehicle could even assist in the eventual colonization of Mars."

One might add that the nuclear vehicle would also give the corporate aerospace industry the ability to sustain their stranglehold on the federal budget for years to come.

By Bruce K. Gagnon

The contents herein are Copyright 1999, Global Network/Bruce Gagnon, the article may be reproduced for non-profit purposes as long as the source is recognised, otherwise reproduction can be arranged through the Global Network.
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