The Red Planet as seen by Europe’s Mars Express.
Credit: ESA/D. O’Donnell – CC BY-SA IGO

A virtual meeting of The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) was held today, detailing a number of exploration issues, including a projected effort to robotically return samples from the Red Planet.

MEPAG meetings involve the planetary exploration community, particularly those scientists, engineers, project and program personnel, theoreticians and experimentalists, instrument scientists, and modelers who are interested in Mars exploration.

MEPAG’s overall mission is to determine if Mars ever supported life; understand the processes and history of climate on Mars; understand the origin and evolution of Mars as a geological system; and to prepare for human exploration.

In a whirl – Mars helicopter decision

The MEPAG briefing provided an overview of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover situation, characterized as doing very well. Key pieces of hardware for the mega-rover vehicle have been completed, now undergoing testing.

No fly zone? Mars helicopter may/may not be on NASA Mars 2020 rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Still to be determined, however, is inclusion of a Mars helicopter – hardware that has been tested successfully here on Earth, but may/may not be sent to the planet as payload on the 2020 rover as a technology demonstrator. It’s a possibility…not a certainty at this point, said Jim Watzin, Director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA.

Return samples

One big ticket MEPAG item is hauling back to Earth select samples of the Red Planet.

Given success of a Mars 2020 rover landing, that machinery would collect samples of the Red Planet, leaving them in cached condition for later pickup. A follow-on return sample lander mission would gather up the samples, blast them off the planet into Mars orbit for eventual delivery directly to Earth, or by way of the projected astronaut-tended Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Chad Edwards

Chad Edwards of the Program Formulation Office at JPL’s Mars Exploration Program Office told MEPAG that extensive Mars ascent vehicle studies have been done, coming to the conclusion that a hybrid propulsion, single-stage-to-Mars-orbit is the best choice. Key Mars sample return technologies are on track to support a sample retrieval lander/sample return orbiter launch as early as 2026, he said.

Credit: SpaceX/Paul Wooster


SpaceX Mars plans

Also taking part in the MEPAG meeting was Paul Wooster, a lead in the technical development of SpaceX’s Mars architecture and vehicles.

Wooster outlined SpaceX Mars planning that is focused on the development of the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). He detailed use of at least two BFR cargo missions to Mars in 2022 that would confirm water resources on Mars and identify hazards.  Those cargo missions would place power, mining, and the support infrastructure for future flights, he advised. The 2024 time period would involve both cargo landers and crewed missions, setting up a propellant production plant, as well as build up a Mars base designed for expansion.

Credit: SpaceX/Paul Wooster

The SpaceX goal is earliest possible establishment of a permanent Mars surface outpost, Wooster explained.

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