Planet Earth work­ing on 3 ad­di­tional Mars lan­ders

Sunday Star - - NATION - By MAR­CIA DUNN AP Aero­space Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) — As Mars’ new­est res­i­dent set­tles in, Planet Earth is work­ing on three more lan­ders and at least two or­biters to join the sci­en­tific Mar­tian brigade.

NASA’s In­Sight space­craft touched down on the sweep­ing, red equa­to­rial plains Mon­day, less than 400 miles from Cu­rios­ity, the only other work­ing ro­bot on Mars.

That’s about the dis­tance from San Fran­cisco to Pasadena, Calif., home to Mis­sion Con­trol for Mars.

In­Sight — the eighth suc­cess­ful Mar­tian lan­der — should be wrap­ping up two years of dig­ging and quake mon­i­tor­ing by the time rovers ar­rive from the U.S., Eu­rope and China.

NASA’s Mars 2020 will hunt for rocks that might hold ev­i­dence of an­cient mi­cro­bial life and stash them in a safe place for re­turn to Earth in the early 2030s. It’s tar­get­ing a once-wet river delta in Jezero Crater.

The Eu­ro­pean-Rus­sian Ex­o­Mars also will sniff out pos­si­ble past life, drilling a cou­ple yards (me­ters) down for chem­i­cal fos­sils. A space­craft that was part of an Ex­o­Mars mis­sion in 2016 crash-landed on the red planet.

The Chi­nese Mars 2020 will fea­ture both an or­biter and lan­der. The United Arab Emi­rates, mean­while, aims to send its first space­craft to Mars in 2020; the or­biter is named Hope, or Amal in Ara­bic.

It seems our neigh­bor Mars holds a siren song for Earth­lings, even as NASA shifts its im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion back to 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 step­pin­goff point for moon land­ings, ac­cord­ing to NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine, and pro­vide crit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence close to home be­fore hu­mans em­bark on a twoto 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 fol­low­ing 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, Zur­buchen said.

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. Oneway 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, Ban­erdt 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.

A life-seek­ing mis­sion to Europa might come about ev­ery decade, Ban­erdt said, while it’s plau­si­ble to have robotic snif­fers launch­ing to Mars ev­ery two years. That’s five Mars mis­sions for ev­ery sin­gle one at Europa, he said.

Mars cur­rently has two func­tion­ing space­craft on the sur­face — In­Sight and Cu­rios­ity — and six satel­lites in work­ing or­der from the U.S., Eu­rope and In­dia. The U.S. is the only countr y to suc­cess­fully land and op­er­ate a space­craft on Mars. Cu­rios­ity has been roam­ing the red sur­face since 2012. NASA’s much older Op­por­tu­nity rover was work­ing un­til June when a global dust storm dis­abled it.

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