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Space Symposium: Soviets Do Most of Talking

May 20, 1987|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

The Soviet Union's exploration of the solar system in the next decade includes missions that eclipse many proposals still in the planning stages in the United States and Europe, according to top space officials from around the world who outlined their nations' programs at a symposium Tuesday in Pasadena.

The Soviet missions include sending an unmanned rover to Mars in 1992 to collect and analyze samples. The Mars mission will also include balloons that will drift around the planet's atmosphere during the day and land on the surface during the cool night to collect samples from widely separated areas, according to Valeriy Barsukov of Moscow's Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry. The samples will be returned to the rover for analysis.

He said the mission may also include small boring machines that would tunnel into the planet like mechanized moles, but Barsukov said some expectations may have to be lowered. "Our wish list is large but we don't know if we have enough weight capability to accomplish all this," Barsukov said through an interpreter.

There have been landings on Mars, but never anything of the scale planned by the Soviets. The United States is in the earliest planning stages for a similar mission, but it could not be completed before the end of the century.

"They're very aggressive when it comes to exploring the solar system," Lew Allen, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said of the Soviets. Allen chaired the opening session of the first International Conference of Solar System Exploration, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The three-day meeting is being held in the Pasadena Convention Center.

The Soviets are also committed to an ambitious unmanned mission to several asteroids in the continuing search for clues to the origin and evolution of the universe--another mission that is high on the wish list, but far down on the waiting list, for U.S. space scientists.

Barsukov, who frequently corrected his English translator, outlined his country's ambitious plans against a backdrop of gloom and doom from representatives of the United States, Europe and Japan.

"These are the times that try men's souls," said Lennard Fisk, the new chief of space science for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Fisk noted that the Challenger shuttle tragedy had set the U.S. space program back several years, and budgetary restrictions have severely hampered the exploration of the solar system.

He also noted that 1986--the year the Challenger exploded--was to have been a banner year for space science. At best, that banner year will arrive three years late, in 1989, he said.

He had a little good news and a little bad news for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's center for unmanned space exploration, which has been hit hard by the slowdown in the space program.

The Magellan Venus Radar Mapper, which must be launched by April of 1989 to make its rendezvous with Venus, had been threatened with a two-year delay because of another slip in the schedule for resumption of shuttle operations. But Fisk indicated that Magellan will keep its schedule, even if that means the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope will have to slip a few months.

Mars Probe Delayed

JPL's modest Mars atmospheric probe, however, will not be launched before 1992 despite efforts to push its launch date up to 1990, he indicated.

"Any change in that would be difficult to execute," he said.

Like that of the United States, the European space program sustained a serious setback last year with the failure of its Ariane rocket. The European planetary program is modest compared to that of either the United States or the Soviet Union, but when the program gets back on track later this year, it is expected to build on the spectacular success of its first effort at interplanetary exploration, the close encounter with Halley's comet in March of 1986.

Roger Bonnet, director of scientific programs for the European Space Agency, said one of the major goals of his agency is to visit another comet, and to bring part of it back.

"A comet nucleus return mission is a high priority for the future," he said.

The Europeans are also at a crossroads of sorts, trying to decide whether to link up with the United States or the Soviets for a major unmanned program down the road. One would be a late-1990s mission to Saturn with NASA, funds for which have not yet been approved by Congress; the other would be an asteroid mission with the Soviet Union.

Japan Looks at Options

Like Europe and the United States, Japan is also trying to sort out its options.

Minoru Oda, director of Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, told about 400 people at Tuesday's opening session that his country plans to move ahead with its own exploration of the solar system, but at a very modest pace.

"Our budget is ridiculously small," Oda said.

He said that in the decade ahead Japan plans to launch several small probes, including various orbiting observatories, but has no grand expectations, even in cooperation with other countries.

"We are still a little bit timid to enter a major international exercise because we are so small," Oda said of Japan's space program.

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