It’s Been A Busy Week For Space Science, Part II: Mars

There were four major announcements regarding various spacecraft last week, but the last post (on Messenger finding water ice on Mercury and Voyager 1 discovering a new region of the heliosphere) got long. So, let’s talk about Mars! Curiosity found percholates in a soil sample used to calibrate some of the instruments and make sure everything’s in working order, and NASA announced a return to Mars in the coming years.

Martian soils are complex (or at least that one patch of them is)

This announcement, regardless of what it was going to be about, was bound to be at least a bit of a letdown, since due to a misinterpretation of some ambient scientific enthusiasm, many people were expecting A Big Announcement. But, given the complexity of the rover and the array of complex analysis tools on board, news that everything is in fine working order is good news. Curiosity analyzed some loose soil in an area called Rocknest, which appears similar to other environments encountered by Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity. The soil analysis was done with the APXS (alpha-particle x-ray spectrometer), the CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), and the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars), and along with verifying that everything was in good working order, the SAM detected perchlorates in the soil. Percholrates are salts with a (Cl O4) ion, and they’ve been found in other soil samples by the Pheonix lander. Perchlorates are very reactive, and there’s speculation that they may be accompanied by carbon compounds. Carbon was detected during the analysis, but it’s not entirely clear if it was from the soil sample or from a small contamination from Earth. Sulphur compounds were also discovered in the soil.

On an unrelated note, am I the only person who keeps hearing “Loch Ness” instead of “Rocknest”?

NASA Mars rover analyzes first soil samples

NASA plans to return to Mars in 2020

After the interesting but still relatively minor announcement about the soil analysis on Mars, NASA announced Monday that a new rover modelled on Curiosity would be landing on Mars in 2020. Much of technology will be reused, including the elaborate landing gear and the much of the chassis, which helps keep the cost (relatively) low given NASA’s continual budget pressures. To support this new mission, NASA is planning support missions too, including:

  • MAVEN, launching in 2013, which will monitor the Martian atmosphere
  • InSight, launching in 2016, which will look at the deep interior of the planet using seismologic and geologic analysis
  • significant participation in the European Space Agency’s Electra (2016) and ExoMars (2018) missions.

Data and insight from these missions will inform the scientific direction of the 2020 rover.

I understand why NASA is taking this tack: funding is tight, to say the least, and so far Curiosity is a raging success. The landing went smoothly, all the instruments are in good working order, and the rover is immensely popular. That last bit is really important, because have a popular, very visible mission not only gives NASA a lot of good press — it gives NASA a lot of political capital, which is critical to maintaining funding. NASA has played the PR game very well, and it’s paying off. Couple a very popular and so far successful mission with a plan for another mission that is budgeted to cost less, and that’s a much easier sell to politicians who control the funding than saying “we want to go try something new again.” It’s a safe option, and there’s plenty of good reasons to take that safe option.

But it’s safe, and while there’s plenty we still don’t know about Mars, there’s plenty we still don’t know about lots of other objects in the solar system too (including oceans on our own planet, but that’s another post entirely.). Concentrating on Mars makes sense if we’re heading towards sample return (ie, having a component of the craft gather rocks or soil and return them to Earth) or eventually putting a human on Mars, and that’s what NASA is gunning for. But given the immense gap between landing a rover on Mars and landing a human on Mars, the increasing funding pressures, and the lack of a driving cultural pressure like the Cold War to spur on extreme exploration, I’m not entirely convinced that we’ll see sample return or a human on Mars in the not-wildly-distant future. I understand why NASA is trying to shoot for that, and there’s good economic and political reasons to build on Curiosity’s success — I’m just not entirely convinced that it’s a line of exploration that’ll come to it’s ultimate fruition.

However, I’d love to be proven wrong.

New NASA Rover to Launch in 2020
A 2020 Return to Mars? (National Geographic)
Mars Beyond 2009

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