Planet Earth work­ing on lan­ders to fol­low In­Sight

Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday) - - News -

our moon.

Just three days af­ter In­Sight’s land­ing, NASA an­nounced a new com­mer­cial lu­nar de­liv­ery pro­gram. The space agency has cho­sen nine U.S. com­pa­nies to com­pete in get­ting sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy ex­per­i­ments to the lu­nar sur­face. The first launch could be next year.

NASA wants to see how it goes be­fore try­ing some­thing sim­i­lar on Mars.

“The moon is where it’s at right now rel­a­tive to com­mer­cial space,” said Thomas Zur­buchen, head of NASA’s sci­ence mis­sion of­fice, which is lead­ing the lu­nar pay­load project.

At the same time, NASA is push­ing for an or­bit­ing out­post near the moon for as­tro­nauts, at the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s di­rec­tion. It would serve as a step­ping-off point for moon land­ings, ac­cord­ing to NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine, and pro­vide crit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence close to home be­fore hu­mans em­bark on a two- to three-year mis­sion to Mars.

Bri­den­s­tine en­vi­sions a trip to Mars for as­tro­nauts in the mid-2030s, ad­mit­tedly a “very ag­gres­sive” goal.

“The re­al­ity is, yes, your na­tion right now is ex­tremely com­mit­ted to get­ting to Mars,” Bri­den­s­tine said af­ter In­Sight’s touch­down, “and us­ing the moon as a tool to achieve that ob­jec­tive as fast as pos­si­ble.”

Mars is the ob­vi­ous place for “boots on the ground” af­ter the moon, said Zur­buchen.

What makes Mars so com­pelling – for robotic and, even­tu­ally, hu­man ex­plo­ration – is its rel­a­tively easy ac­cess, said In­Sight’s lead sci­en­tist, Bruce Ban­erdt of NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory. One-way travel time is six months, ev­ery two years when the plan­ets are clos­est. Con­di­tions are harsh, but rel­a­tively hos­pitable. “Kind of like be­ing in Antarc­tica with­out the snow,” Ban­erdt said.

On top of that, Mars may be one of the most likely places to find life out­side of Earth, he said.

Jupiter’s moon Europa may have har­bored or even still hold life, but it would take so much longer and cost so much more to get there that Ban­erdt said it’s hard to imag­ine achiev­ing such a mis­sion any­time soon.

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