“The question is: What’s next?” Grunsfeld said.
added that NASA’s highest science priority is determining “what are the
first few steps” when the next Mars launch window opens again in 2018
(orbital mechanics require that the Earth and Mars be aligned properly
for the eight-and-a-half-month journey to Mars).
return provides the best opportunity for synergy" between manned and
unmanned missions, Grunsfeld said. In one scenario, he said a Mars
sample collected by a rover could be captured by astronauts stationed
beyond Earth orbit for safe return to Earth. That scenario would also
secure a sample on the extremely small chance that a Martian sample
posed a threat to life on Earth.
The search for past life on Mars
has been a common science theme, added Orlando Figueroa, who headed the
Mars planning group. A sample return mission with accompany technology
development is a likely next step. The challenge, he added, was agreeing
on a series of Mars missions with “different flavors” of orbiters and
rovers to find a pathway for returning a sample to Earth.
officials also did not rule out the possibility of installing a
“life-finder chip” aboard future rovers in an attempt to move beyond the
current goal of uncovering evidence that microbial life once existed on
Mars. While previous Mars missions have all focused on evidence of past
life, finding what NASA scientists call “extant life” on Mars is “just a
different animal,” Grunsfeld said.
The planning group’s
recommendations will be used to determine NASA’s budget priorities for
future exploration of the solar system. The options provided in the
report will help shape NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget request to be unveiled
in February 2013.
Related links, stories:
Mars Program Planning Group report
Adam Steltzner, NASA's hipster rocket engineer
Slideshow: Remembering Neil Armstrong & Apollo