Planet Earth working on landers to follow InSight
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.