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JPL's Mars lander proposal advances to next round

The GEMS project is one of three selected by NASA to compete for funds. It would study the inner composition of Mars to shed light on the planet's beginnings — and Earth's.

May 15, 2011|By Joe Piasecki
  • A model of the Mars rover "Curiosity "is tested at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
A model of the Mars rover "Curiosity "is tested at the Jet Propulsion… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

A scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is lobbying for a new Mars lander that would perform an unprecedented study of the Red Planet's interior. It is one of three concepts in the running for funding through NASA's competitive Discovery Program.

The proposed Geophysical Monitoring Station, or GEMS, would pack a scientific payload including a thermal probe, seismometer and orbital tracking system. All are tools for learning about the inner composition of Mars to help discover the largely unknown story of that planet's beginnings — and, to some degree, Earth's — said JPL's Bruce Banerdt, who would lead the project.

"GEMS would provide unique and critical information about the same [types of] processes that likely operated during the first few hundred million years on the Earth ... a period for which virtually all information has been lost due to subsequent vigorous activity," Banerdt said in an email. "On Mars, this information appears to have been preserved due to its lower level of activity for the past few billion years, allowing us a virtual window into our own past."

GEMS and two proposals from other NASA facilities were selected by space agency leaders last week from among 28 submissions for consideration of a 2016 launch date. Each team will receive $3 million for preliminary design studies, and whichever is selected will receive a budget of up to $425 million.

JPL has often scored big through this bottom-up mission-planning approach, making headlines with such Discovery missions as the Mars lander Pathfinder, which reached the Red Planet in 1997; the comet-colliding Deep Impact probe, launched in 2005; and the Kepler telescope, sent to space in 2009. In September, the JPL-managed twin GRAIL spacecraft are slated to launch to the moon to study its internal makeup.

NASA this year announced funding for NEOCam, a JPL telescope designed to study near-Earth objects from space to help determine their origins and their risk of colliding with Earth.

"We want to learn about [near-Earth objects] because they give us clues to the solar system's formation and because we want to better understand the impact hazard," JPL astrophysicist Amy Mainzer, who is leading the telescope's design, said in an email.

The JPL-managed Curiosity rover is to be launched to Mars as early as November. Its goal is to assess whether Mars has — or ?ever had — an environment that could support microbial life.

joe.piasecki@latimes.com

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