More Delays Will Leave Martian Scientists As Smarting As Everby Bruce Moomaw
Pasadena - Sept. 21, 2001
The public affairs offices of both NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed today that the agency is seriously considering following a course of action whose possibility was suggested several weeks ago in 'Space Daily': delaying by two years the planned 2007 first test flight of the complex Mars landing spacecraft that will later be used to return Mars samples to Earth.
The so-called 'Smart Lander' will need to land within just a few kilometers of a precisely selected target on Mars -- using new obstacle-avoidance systems and rugged landing gear to further minimize the chances of a crash.
It would then release a big, long-range rover that would spend up to one Earth year prowling across as much as 100 kilometers of Martian terrain, studying the planet with an awesome 300 kg of scientific instruments.
This mission is extremely important -- both scientifically, and as a test flight of the same lander-rover setup which is scheduled to be used four years later to collect half a kilogram of Mars samples and rocket them back into orbit around Mars, for retrieval and return to Earth by a separate Mars orbiter built by France with U.S. help.
But it's obviously a very complex and expensive mission -- and NASA's continuing budget woes, which will now be even more serious in the wake of the American response to last week's megaterrorist attack, are forcing the agency to retrench in many ways.
Even a few days before the attack, the Office of Management and Budget ordered NASA to prepare a new budget for Fiscal Year 2003 that would be cut by fully 5 percent below what had been earlier planned.
Any official decision to delay the first Smart Lander to 2009 -- and thus to delay the first Mars sample-return mission from 2011 to 2013 -- is likely to come in one or two months. However, JPL assured this writer that -- contrary to other media reports -- no changes at all are planned in any U.S. Mars mission before 2007.
The fate of the very ill-defined Mars mission the U.S. already had planned for 2009 -- which would perhaps have been a Mars orbiter built in collaboration with Italy, to probe Mars' original surface features below its mantle of wind-blown dust using radar -- is also uncertain. It too might be delayed two years, or it might be launched in the 2009 window along with the Smart Lander.
JPL officials also told SpaceDaily that the fate of the proposed 2007 Mars Scout mission -- which was earlier in serious danger of cancellation because of NASA's budget problems -- is now 'completely unknown'. It's quite possible that the 2007 Mars Scouts will now be retained, both to plug the hole in America's Mars launch schedule and to provide further reconnaissance of possible good landing sites for both the 2009 Smart Lander and the later sample return mission.
However, none of this would force the French to delay their planned separate 2007 test flight of their Mars sample-return orbiter -- which would rehearse braking into Mars orbit entirely by means of a braking skim through Mars' upper atmosphere, and then practice rendezvous and docking in Mars orbit with a tiny dummy sample container.
This mission would also carry and release the four little 'NetLander' scientific Mars hard landers that France is planning for that year.
It might also not mean any delay in the planned 2007 flight of a joint Italian-American Mars comsat to relay back high-speed data from the Smart Lander and other Mars landers, since the NetLanders and Mars Scouts can use as many data-relay Mars orbiters as possible.
As usual Mars exploration remains a scattered effort which along with all other solar system exploration continues to be swamped by the ferocious demand for money the International Space Station is placing on already shrinking national space budgets.
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Last Modified: Tue Oct 02, 2001