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Rover? Astronaut? NASA officials probe future of Mars exploration

September 25, 2012|By Amina Khan | Los Angeles Times
  • John Grunsfeld, left, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA is on the hunt for the next flagship mission to Mars.
John Grunsfeld, left, associate administrator for NASA's Science… (Robyn Beck / AFP-Getty Images )

With budget cuts looming and no clear flagship mission on the horizon, the Mars program has been looking to rechart its course in the coming years. Sending a spacecraft to the Red Planet to return a sample of rock may be the way to go, according to a summary report unveiled Tuesday by the Mars Program Planning Group.

The Planetary Science Decadal Survey for 2013 to 2022, released last year by the National Research Council, put a Mars sample return mission as a top priority. Meanwhile, President Obama’s administration has pushed to focus future efforts on sending humans to Mars.

According to the report, led by former NASA “Mars Czar” Orlando Figueroa, a sample return mission done right could further both goals.

“Sample return represents the best opportunity to find synergies technologically between the programs,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, which is responsible for such planetary science missions. “Sending a mission to go to Mars and return a sample looks a lot like sending a crew to Mars and returning them safely. There’s a parallelism of ideas there.”

There would be a new set of issues to be dealt with in a sample return mission – one of which would be interplanetary contamination, Grunsfeld said. Just as Earth spacecraft sent to other planets carry loads of hitchhiking microbes that have the potential to survive in these harsh environments (a concern laid out in this recent Times story), Martian rocks could potentially contaminate Earth too. Having astronauts rendezvous with a robotic spacecraft in space to seal off any potential contaminants could be a useful way to team the human exploration and planetary science programs together.

Grunsfeld emphasized that the details of the full report, set to come out in mid-to-late October, were not a plan – more of a set of options to figure out what the plan may be, which may not take shape until February, after the Obama administration presents budget numbers to Congress.

In the meantime, the most pressing question over the next four to six months, he said, is whether NASA will take the opportunity to plan a mission for the next launch window in 2018 – and what such a mission might look like.

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