Planet Earth work­ing on 3 Mars lan­ders to join In­sight

The State (Sunday) - - News - BY MAR­CIA DUNN

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, Cal­i­for­nia, 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 of yards 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 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 three­year mis­sion to Mars.

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

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