NASA Scientists Want Input on Where Humans Should Land on Mars

NASA Scientists Want Input on Where Humans Should Land on Mars

The Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, Jim Green, announced today that NASA will hold a workshop in October where planetary scientists, technologists and human spaceflight experts can propose landing sites for the first human mission to Mars.

The October workshop is an “open call” to propose sites that not only are of high scientific interest, but also have the natural resources to support human expeditions. 

Whenever NASA has a mission that will land on the Red Planet, it holds workshops for scientists to identify, propose and defend their choices for the best spots to set down. In one sense, this is no different from those held for prior landing missions, but the additional criteria of being able to support human exploration adds special interest.

NASA is promoting a “Journey to Mars” theme these days, tying together its human spaceflight and robotic planetary exploration efforts.  The two have long been at odds with each other, but NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has made uniting the human and robotic spaceflight Mars communities a key focus of his tenure.

The workshop’s goal is identifying “exploration zones” where “humans could land, live and work” on Mars.   Green explained in a hastily-called media teleconference this afternoon that NASA’s current plan is that a human mission will land in one place, the crew will live in another location, and will be able to explore an area of 100 kilometers.  Contaminants from landing engines prevent the crew from establishing its living quarters at the same place they land, he indicated.  In addition, the landing area needs to be relatively hazard-free while sites close to aquifers and of scientific interest may be elsewhere.

Green’s message is that proposals for landing sites are needed immediately — even though a human landing is not anticipated until the 2030s — because NASA has spacecraft orbiting and on the surface of Mars now that have limited lifetimes, but are needed to provide ground truth and obtain any additional data that are required.

Some planetary scientists insist that returning samples of Mars to Earth for analysis is a necessary prerequisite before anyone lands there so that surface characteristics are well understood in advance.  The top priority of the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey for a planetary science flagship mission is Mars sample return.  NASA was forced to scuttle a plan for sending a series of spacecraft to accomplish that goal for budgetary reasons.  The upcoming Mars 2020 rover, which is using leftover hardware from the Curiosity rover currently on Mars, replaces the first of that set of missions.  It is being designed to store (“cache”) samples that would be returned to Earth by future spacecraft, but no plan is in place for how or when those samples will come back.

Bolden repeatedly states that, for the first time, the goal of landing people on Mars is within a 20-year window.  With the clock ticking, is it a race between the scientists who want a robotic sample return mission and the human spaceflight advocates who are intent on full steam ahead? 

Green delicately replied to a question about that today.  Insisting that the Science Mission Directorate and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate are not in a race, he said that a critical component of a human Mars mission is developing an ascent vehicle to lift the crew from the surface onto their homeward journey.  Testing that with a smaller robotic sample return mission is a key ingredient, he said. adding that if the samples cached by Mars 2020 are determined to have great value, they definitely will be returned to Earth before a human landing mission.

For his part, Bolden has said publicly that he does not agree that a robotic sample return mission is a requirement before sending humans.  It  was not necessary to return a sample of the Moon before the Apollo astronauts landed, he believes, and it is not required for Mars. 

The workshop will be held October 27-30, 2015 at the Lunar and Planetary Institute near Houston (and the Johnson Space Center).

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