11 Marvelous Mars Missions
At the Lunar Planetary Science Conference in Houston earlier this week, Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA, discussed ongoing missions and priorities moving forward. Much success can be found on and around Mars, where NASA and the international community are working diligently in advance of manned missions in the mid-2030s. Here are 11 Mars missions either in operation or in development.
1. Mars Odyssey
Presently orbiting the red planet, Mars Odyssey is a sensor-laden NASA satellite designed to find water or ice, and to examine the planet’s geology. Odyssey is also a communications relay for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.
2. Mars Express
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter studies the planet’s air and soil, looking at (among many other things) the elements of one and the minerals in the other. A camera captures images at up to 2 meters of resolution. (For comparison, most of Google Earth is at 15 meters, though there are fewer roads and buildings on Mars.)
3. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The MRO and its powerful HiRISE camera map the surface of Mars and collect data for geologists to work out the planet’s processes. It also captured the Curiosity rover parachuting down to the surface of Mars.
Late last year, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft was placed in orbit of the fourth planet, where it has begun returning astonishing photographs and atmospheric science. It almost didn't launch; the government shutdown brought countdown preparations to a halt. NASA had to request a special dispensation to continue the mission—not because two years of work would be lost (which didn’t matter under the circumstances), nor because the launch window was going to be missed (if politicians understood orbital mechanics, they wouldn’t have become politicians), but because MAVEN’s communications package was necessary for the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. NASA argued that delaying MAVEN was an “imminent risk to life or property.”
Since 2004, the Opportunity rover has been examining Martian geology to work out the mysterious planet’s present and past. (What happened to the water? Where did the atmosphere go?) In that time, it has set the off-world distance-driving record and returned spectacular science. For the second year running, the White House FY2016 budget provides $0 for the rover, which could effectively kill it. But, said NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski in February, "We will look at continuing the operation of those activities, and finding ways to fund them, if in fact they actually are operational by 2016, and the science value does make sense."
Curiosity’s mission is just as its name suggests—it's there to answer a few things we’ve been wondering about. Specifically: Was Gale Crater once conducive to life? With respect to current conditions, what should we know before we send people to Mars? How does water play into all of this? You might be familiar with Curiosity’s spectacular sky-crane landing on Mars—dubbed by NASA as the “seven minutes of terror.”
When the Indian Space Research Organization successfully put a spacecraft in the orbit of Mars, it became only the fourth space agency to ever reach that world, and the first to do so on the first try. (As I’ve written previously, Mars is guarded jealously by the Great Galactic Ghoul.) The Mars Orbiter Mission brings together the best of India’s space talent, and has proven a successful test of the agency’s rocket system, space maneuvers, space communications network, and autonomous software design. ISRO and NASA have since established a working group for future collaborative space efforts.
8. Trace Gas Orbiter
The European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency will launch the first half of a two-part mission called ExoMars in 2016. The mission is organized to scan for biosignatures by way of an orbiter and stationary lander. The orbiter will search for methane, which possibly originates by way of biological processes; the Schiaparelli EDM lander will look at the planet’s geophysics. Originally, this was a NASA-ESA effort, but NASA had to pull out after its budget was (again) slashed.
The NASA Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport—torturously named so as to abbreviate to “InSight”—mission is designed to study the evolution of the geology of Mars. The spacecraft launches next year and arrives on Mars in September. Once it lands, the stationary platform will drill 16 feet into the Martian soil and begin reading the planet’s temperature; a seismometer will sense for marsquakes (which is a new word that pretty much proves we are living in the future). Taken together, the collected science will help planetary geologists work out the interior structure of Mars.
10. ExoMars Rover
One of the Trace Gas Orbiter’s objectives is to find a landing spot for the ExoMars rover, which is set for a 2019 arrival. It will continue the earlier mission to find biosignatures. The technology developed for and tested by the Schiaparelli EDM lander will be refined and used to get the rover on the ground.
11. 2020 Science Rover
The Mars 2020 rover is based on Curiosity’s design, and will examine the geology of Mars, search for signs of past life, and collect samples for later retrieval.