NASA Considers a New Approach to Mars Exploration

From Scientific American:

Starting in the 2020s, scientists who participate in the agency’s Mars missions might no longer design and build their own highly specialized payloads to explore the red planet. Instead, planetary scientists could find themselves operating much as astronomers who use large telescopes do now: applying for time to use a spacecraft built with a generic suite of scientific instruments.

The proposed change is spurred by NASA’s waning influence at Mars. The agency’s long-running string of spacecraft is winding to a close, and international and commercial interests are on the rise. By the middle of the next decade, European, Chinese, Emirati and SpaceX missions are as likely to be at Mars as NASA is.

Jim Watzin, head of NASA’s Mars exploration programme in Washington DC, suggested the new approach to the red planet on 6 October at a virtual meeting of a Mars advisory group. “The era that we all know and love and embrace is really coming to an end,” he said. “It’s important to recognize that the future is not going to be the same as the past.”

Throughout the 2000s NASA sent a sustained barrage of spacecraft to Mars, unique in the sheer number of robots directed at one planetary target. But many have expired, and the ones still operating are growing old. NASA’s three functional orbiters—Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN—launched in 2001, 2005, and 2013 respectively. The Opportunity rover is in its thirteenth year, and the Curiosity rover is in its fifth.

Perhaps more significantly, NASA has only one more spacecraft scheduled in its Mars programme, a rover to launch in 2020 that is tasked with gathering samples for an as-yet-unscheduled return to Earth. (The InSight geophysics probe, slated for a 2018 launch, was not developed under the auspices of NASA’s Mars programme.)

NASA wants to start …

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