NASA Unveils Its 21st Century Mars Campaigns

26 October 2000

By Andrew Bridges
Pasadena Bureau Chief
and Leonard David
Senior Space Writer

Click on this image to see an artist's representation of the past, present and future
of NASA's Mars rovers, from 1997 to 2003 and onward to 2007.

WASHINGTON – Sobered by the loss of two missions at Mars last year, NASA officials unveiled on Thursday a scaled-back campaign to explore the Red Planet over the next 15 years.

NASA will halt ambitious plans to send a lander/orbiter pair to Mars every 26 months, when the Earth and the Red Planet are closely aligned. Instead, it will now stagger the pace, dispatching just one of each at the roughly two-year intervals.

But officials at a press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., stressed that a less aggressive Mars program would be more flexible, responsive and resilient than the American space agency's earlier staccato approach.

"It's a program, not just a collection of missions," said Scott Hubbard, NASA's Mars Program director.

The revised program also looks out beyond returning a sample of Martian soil to Earth for study, said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for space science. That goal has been pushed back to 2011 or later.

"This program will represent a long-term strategy. It won’t just end with Mars sample return like the previous one did," Weiler said. Officials said the new program allows for NASA to respond to any new discoveries on Mars, like the evidence that suggests water may have flowed on the planet’s surface in the recent past, as well as accommodate the prospect of any of the planned missions failing.

The agency plans on six major Mars missions for this decade alone, spending as much as $450 million a year on its near-term efforts. The missions include:

  • 2001 -- The Mars Odyssey Orbiter, for high-resolution mapping and imaging
  • 2003 -- Two water-sniffing Mars Exploration Rovers, for detailed field geological work
  • 2005 -- A Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – an orbiter modeled on NASA's successful Mars Global Surveyor, but capable of imaging objects as small as a foot (30 centimeters) in diameter. Jim Garvin, NASA’s Mars exploration program scientist, likened it to putting a microscope in orbit.
  • 2007 -- A "smart" surface lander equipped with a hazard avoidance system, precision landing capability and designed to deliver a rover laden with up to 600 pounds of scientific instruments; also in 2007, a "Scout" mission, which could entail a small Beagle 2-type lander, a balloon or an airplane. Both balloon and airplane Mars missions have been submitted as proposals in the current round of Discovery-class NASA projects.
  • 2007 -- NASA could also kick off an international collaborative effort in 2007, teaming up with the Italian space agency on a telecommunications orbiter for Mars or with the French on a network of small landers.
  • 2009 -- NASA could team up again with the Italians on a follow-on to the European Space Agency's 2003 Mars Express mission. The probe would carry ground-penetrating radar to prospect for water on the Red Planet.
  • 2011 -- As early as 2011, but perhaps slipping to 2014, NASA could start a long-term project to return multiple samples of Martian soil and rock to Earth. The effort, which could cost as much as $2 billion a pop, had been on tap for 2005 under the previous plan.

"We will seek before we sample," said Hubbard of the new plan to do more intensive reconnaissance work from orbit before selecting where to land and collect up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of Mars for return to Earth.

The seven-month retooling of its Mars campaign was prompted by the back-to-back loss last year of two spacecraft at the Red Planet. Subsequent investigative reports, including one authored by retired Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young, found bad management, a lack of training and an inadequate system of checks and balances, as well as too-tight budgets, doomed the Mars Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander missions, a $300 million-plus loss.

"I’m here to say after seven months we feel we have checked off every box in the Tom Young report," Weiler said.

Hubbard told that he would begin to start presenting the Mars master plan to various advisory committees, particularly those at the National Academy of Sciences. And over the next 18 months, NASA aims to refine the revised program’s costs and technology needs.

Indeed, the revised plan hinges on the development of multiple new technologies. David Lavery, NASA program executive for solar system exploration, said precision landing is among them.

The Mars Pathfinder landing in 1997 was within a 60x200-mile (100x300-kilometer) landing ellipse. "Where we want to be by 2007 is down to something that's 1 kilometer by 3 kilometers (0.62 by 2 miles) – a reduction by a factor of 100," Lavery said. The eventual goal is to land spacecraft on the equivalent of a Martian dime -- within a tight ellipse just a few hundreds of yards (meters) across, he said.

Firouz Naderi, the Mars program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that given a Mars sample-return launch in 2011, the specimens of Martian rock and dirt would be back on Earth in 2014. He said that JPL has requested the NASA Johnson Space Center to study the prospects that the returning samples could be picked up and returned to Earth via a space shuttle.

As for technology challenges, Naderi said that autonomous rendezvous and docking in Mars orbit is a must-have. "Everything that we have done in America has been either ground-aided or pilot-aided," he said.

Another technology issue is the survival of rocket fuel after a long-duration sit on Mars. That propellant – supercold liquid fuels or a solid-fuel rocket motor – is needed to kick the Mars samples off the planet and into orbit for pickup.

What’s missing from the equation are humans. NASA has already scrapped plans to launch in 2001 a package of experiments that would have laid some of the groundwork for future human missions to Mars, including experiments to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and to assess the threat of its dust and radiation environments. Now, similar experiments might not make to Mars until 2007 at the earliest.

Looking to the future of a human mission to Mars, Weiler told that "before you send humans to a place, you'd like to know where you are going."

"We are doing the groundwork for eventual human missions to Mars. This program is not driven by human exploration. It is driven by science. But we are obviously going to do a lot of homework. We're going to understand whether there's water near the surface. If we find water near the surface that has profound effects on human missions," Weiler said. Water would be a valuable resource for conversion to breathable oxygen and to transform into rocket fuel, he said.

Back to Home Page