Planet Earth working on three Mars landers to follow InSight
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 oncewet river delta in Jezero Crater.
The European-Russian ExoMars will seek possible past life, drilling for chemical fossils. A spacecraft that was part of an ExoMars mission in 2016 crashlanded on the red planet.
The Chinese Mars 2020 will feature both an orbiter and a lander. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, aims to send a spacecraft to Mars in 2020; the orbiter is named Amal, Arabic for hope.
It seems 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.
NASA also is pushing for an orbiting outpost near the moon for astronauts, at the Trump administration’s direction. It would be a stepping-off point for moon landings, according to NASA Administrator
Jim Bridenstine, and provide critical experience 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, 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. 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.”
Mars also may be one of the most likely places to find life outside of Earth, he said.
Jupiter’s moon Europa might have harbored or might 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.
An artist’s rendering in 2016 shows a concept design for the Chinese Mars 2020 rover and lander.