Mars 2020 rover is a first step in bringing back specimens from the Red Planet to Earth.
Credit: NASA/JPL

 

A new sweeping assessment from the National Academies regarding future space exploration planning has noted its concern about the aging infrastructure orbiting Mars, which is vital for communicating with the landers and rovers, on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA currently operates Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN) around Mars, all of which have exceeded their design lifetimes. In addition to performing science, these missions also provide vital telecommunications support with surface assets.

Old, but still on duty: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter yields unmatched views of layered materials, gullies, channels, and other science targets and also characterizing possible future landing sites for robotic and human missions.
Credit: NASA

The loss of one or more of these spacecraft could make it difficult for NASA to support the return of samples from the surface of Mars, the report explains.

Technologically difficult

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is to collect samples for eventual return to Earth, but the return portion of that effort will be technologically difficult. The committee concluded that the space agency’s Planetary Science Division’s Mars sample return technology development plan is on the right track, and endorsed its proposed “focused Mars sample return” strategy.

The report also notes that going forward beyond Mars 2020, NASA is focused entirely on sample return.

NASA Mars 2020 rover is designed to collect samples, store the specimens in tubes, then deposit the tubes on the surface for later pick-up.
Credit: NASA/ESA

“There is currently no vision for a program beyond sample return, either for scientific investigation or to prepare for future human exploration,” the report advises.

 

 

Wanted: strategic plan

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program “has not yet put forward a complete architecture and attendant strategic plan that addresses the long-term goals of Mars exploration and optimizes science return across the spectrum of past, current, and future missions,” the report states.

Credit: NASA

 

While Mars plans are evaluated, the Academies report looks at a wide array of planetary science missions, including investigation of Europa and other worlds, and the needed technological developments necessary to further NASA’s exploration agenda.

To read the entire report and recommendations — “Visions into Voyages for Planetary Sciences in the Decade 2013-2022: A Midterm Review” — go to:

https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25186/visions-into-voyages-for-planetary-sciences-in-the-decade-2013-2022

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