The future of Mars exploration will be greatly improved by humans making a stay on the Red Planet. The work that could be performed by astronaut crews on that distant world would far exceed what the mechanized machinery of Mars can accomplish – but certainly at a much greater cost.
To that end, NASA is planning a Moon to Mars strategy that identifies science as one of the three pillars upon which the agency’s pursuit of sustained human exploration throughout the solar system rests. What is being designed now is the architecture to achieve this goal.
NASA’s Moon to Mars Architecture Workshops will be held later this month, organized by the National Academies’ Space Studies Council. According to a statement from Nujoud Merancy, Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA’s Office of Strategy and Architecture in the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, the space agency is seeking input on science and technology investments that could help lead to a sustainable human return to the Moon and dispatching crews to Mars.
Related: NASA establishes ‘Moon to Mars’ office to help get astronauts to the Red Planet
“Our partnerships with industry, academia and the international community are helping NASA define an architecture that allows us to boldly explore the Moon, Mars and more,” explains Merancy.
Tale of the Tiger Team
Arguably, the science conducted on the surface of Mars by astronauts will have the greatest impact on the scope and scale of this architecture. Therefore, deciding on scientific priorities deserves early attention.
Recent history demonstrates the issue of sidewalk in scientific tasks for astronauts too late.
This is a central message of a recent study for the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), which suggests how and where on the Red Planet humans can maximize exploration and scientific production.
A MEPAG Tiger team on the science objectives of the human mission to Mars was led by Bruce Jakosky, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colorado. Their report was transmitted to NASA late last year.
Proactive, not reactive
“I think the real value of this report is that we get NASA to pay attention,” Jakosky told Space.com in an exclusive interview. “We see a lot of work underway in planning the architecture for human missions to Mars. But the science is not in the discussion. My goal as president of the Tiger Team is to try to include science in the discussion,” he said.
Fitting science into the edges is not the way to do world-class science, Jakosky said. NASA needs to be proactive, not reactive, in incorporating science, he said.
NASA’s Apollo program from the 1960s through the early 1970s, Jakosky noted, had scientists, engineers and astronauts working hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, to ensure science got done.
“And that’s something I don’t think we see today on Artemis or Mars,” Jakosky said. “It has to be an iterative process to ensure science and engineering work together,” he said.
Science-based landing sites
Jim Head, a noted planetary researcher at Brown University, was a member of the Tiger Team reporting group.
“NASA is currently updating the objectives of the Moon to Mars initiative with the ‘architect right/execute left’ strategy,” said Head. This translates, he added, to “working backwards from the defined goal to establish the complete set of elements that will be needed for success. Execute development of all elements on a regular basis, integrating as you go according to the established architecture”.
Head said the MEPAG Tiger Team report was designed to be part of NASA’s strategy, as the group considered things like the ideal science-based Mars landing sites, the types of activities and dwell times needed to meet goals and objectives, and potential robotic partnerships.
“These types of considerations provide significant insights into the feed-forward of the lunar component of NASA’s Moon-Mars initiative, the Artemis phase,” Head said.
Real-time interaction and adaptability
Mars holds many clues about the early history of the solar system and how terrestrial planets supported habitats and life, said Bethany Ehlmann, a member of the Tiger Team reporting group. She is a professor of planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies in Pasadena, California.
For many types of geological science, especially those that involve a lot of interaction with the terrain, such as collecting samples or deep drilling, Ehlmann said human capabilities are “uniquely enabling” due to real-time interaction and adaptability.
“Humans in an EVA activity can perform data acquisitions and sample collections in a few hours that took rovers years,” Ehlmann told Space.com. “With NASA’s Moon-Mars initiative underway, it’s important to think about what instruments and supporting technologies need to be developed now to equip our astronauts to do exceptional science on Mars.”
Ehlmann points out the reference missions indicated in the study report that exemplify a series of possibilities, such as astronauts investigating icy locations, accessing cliffs, exploring higher altitudes on Mars or carrying out expeditions to investigate caves.
These exemplary cases highlight how individual, specific missions can achieve high-value science.
Catalyze the discussion
Jakosky, as president of the Tiger Team, notes that the list of cases mentioned in the report does not no represent all potential missions, but “should serve to catalyze discussions within and between the scientific and exploration communities.”
Suggested missions included projected astronaut trips to Utopia Planitia, Valles Marineris, as well as Cerberus Fossae.
“Any landing site will provide spectacular scientific results. I think that’s clear,” Jakosky said. “Mars is a very diverse and geologically complex planet. A single location will not tell us everything we want to know about Mars.”
One scenario involves crews going natural in Mars. This is an underground study of natural caves – with many Mars caves already discovered previously.
There is a need to characterize the habitability conditions of a cavernous environment, be it the availability of water, energy sources and chemical potential. But also to determine whether signatures of life are present in the cave environment, the report adds.
Human explorers could land near a target cave and remain within the habitat for much or most of the mission. They would teleoperate sample retrieval robots deployed on the floor of a cave. Doing so would eliminate operations delay compared to running a robotic investigation on Earth, “a multiple orders of magnitude decrease in decision time,” the report says.
Why humans on Mars?
The report explains how humans can advance a valuable palette of scientific goals on the Red Planet. Clearly, teams can perform on-site field measurements, perform mapping of local areas, and gain access underground under their own power.
Selecting the highest value samples for return from the surface, subsurface and atmosphere and placing these samples in laboratories on Earth is crucial, the report explains.
First, Mars explorers can deploy local and regional networks of information-gathering devices to capture processes operating on Mars during and between missions.
From orbit or on the surface of Mars, teleoperated robotic capabilities as precursors to human Mars shuttles can probe locations beyond the reach of a human landing site or assess a rich diversity of terrains and habitats.
Back here on Earth, there is a need for ground controllers to operate the infrastructure necessary to ensure human safety and efficient operations on Mars. It is also vital to take advantage of improved capabilities for doing science, thanks to teams of local experts.
High priority science
An important sign of the study is the selection of the location to do science with humans on Mars.
“Given the complexity of Mars’ evolutionary history and the tremendous diversity of environments on Mars, no single site can address all high-priority scientific objectives,” the report highlights.
A central conclusion of the study is that vital science can be carried out by humans on Mars “which would be much more difficult or impossible to do with robotic spacecraft; human mission capabilities have the potential to change both objectives and priorities – and can definitely accelerate the pace – for the scientific exploration of Mars.”
As for scientific work on Mars, the Tiger Team has flagged a trio of high-level goals:
“What sets Mars apart from the rest of the solar system is the potential for life, the history of water and the nature of geological processes, and similarities to Earth,” Jakosky said. “Secondly, it’s the relative proximity to Mars and the relative ease with which we can explore it,” he said.
Very familiar with the report’s conclusions is Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, now an affiliate of Stanford University’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Hubbard served as the first director of NASA’s Mars exploration program in 2000, earning him the title “Mars Czar” as he restructured the space agency’s Mars program after several failures to explore the planet.
In Hubbard’s opinion, the MEPAG Tiger Team report is an “excellent example of human exploration goals for Mars based on scientific objectives,” Hubbard told Space.com.
Hubbard said he hopes both NASA and the upcoming National Academies study use the Tiger Team’s report as “important community input.”
The full text of the “MEPAG Tiger Team Report on the Scientific Objectives of the Human Mission to Mars” can be read online.