Obama proposal breathes new life into Mars exploration

| Staff Reporter

Mars exploration is a specialty at Washington University. If President Obama’s proposal for NASA to aim for a human landing on Mars by 2030 is enacted, University scientists would be part of this grand endeavor.

Ray Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, directs the Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Laboratory, which is heavily involved in NASA’s planetary exploration efforts. He is currently exploring the surface of Mars with multiple probes, including the Spirit and Opportunity probes.

“The more we look with the two rovers, the more excited we become for lots of evidence for water in the past, and even continuing occasionally today,” he said.

This April, Obama announced his plan for NASA’s future. The central objective is to shift focus away from returning to the moon and instead aim for an asteroid and Mars.

Arvidson’s group would be instrumental in the exploration to prepare for a Mars landing. The rovers’ finding that there is plenty of ice on the surface, for example, opens the possibility that we might be able to use Martian ice for drinking water and even to help make rocket fuel, Arvidson said.

This strategy, called in-situ resource utilization, would be cheaper than carrying all resources on the spacecraft. And it could be vital to survival, as people would have to stay on the surface for as long as six months before the orbital mechanics of Earth and Mars allowed them to return.

Robotic exploration will likely pave the way for humans on Mars, by exploring and setting up a base before they arrive, he said.

Kirsten Siebach, a junior who has been working on the Mars rovers with Arvidson for more than a year and wants to continue studying planetary science in graduate school, appreciates that the new NASA plan focuses on technology development and unmanned exploration.

“I think you can get a lot more out of those for less expense than you can for manned missions,” she said. “I’m always excited when it sounds like there will be more missions and more data to play with.”

The future of American space travel has undergone some revision in the current administration. In 2004, President Bush announced his vision for the future of U.S. space exploration: a return to the moon by 2020. He also called for the aging space shuttle program to be shut down, since the shuttles have reached the end of their life span.

But we don’t yet have replacements for them, thanks to a lack of planning in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, Arvidson said. For a few years, we’ll have to rely on other countries to take our astronauts to the International Space Station.

“So this plan would build a heavy launch vehicle that gets to lower Earth orbit, and somehow gets to the moon…that is a huge amount of money, and a lot of technology investment,” Arvidson said.

But the program suffered from a lack of funding. It ran far over budget and past scheduled deadlines. To confront these problems, NASA commissioned a report on the costs of continuing with a moon landing and potential alternatives.

They concluded that going to the moon would cost a lot more money, and since we’ve already been there, we might get a better return on our investment if we aimed for a more challenging target. Rather than return to the moon, why not go somewhere new?

“The upshot is to not try to go back to the moon, but rather to invest broadly in technology so we can go to more distant targets, and to involve the commercial sector much more heavily than has been done before,” Arvidson said.

From Arvidson’s perspective, this plan makes good sense. “So [President Obama is] actually investing either $5 or $6 billion more over the next few years than the Bush administration had, but I think in a more realistic way. There’s a lot more technology investment, robotic precursor exploration and moving into deep space instead of going back to the moon. So I think it’s all good… I personally think he had it right.”

The commission identified asteroids as a target worth exploring. “An asteroid is a possible target that’s scientifically interesting. And some come too close to the earth, and someday they’re going to hit the earth, so we need to understand them.”

The University plays a large role in the similar plan of travelling to Mars since Arvidson and his group are already heavily involved in robotic exploration of the planet.

They have been exploring the surface of Mars with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which are both “way out of warranty, but still operating” after seven years. In addition, they also worked on the Phoenix probe, which dug around in the ice on the surface. Now, they’ll be involved in three new proposed probes, including two to explore Venus’ atmosphere and surface.

Arvidson says we know hardly anything about Mars, given that its surface area is similar to the land area of Earth. So far, though, the rovers have uncovered surprising evidence that it was once a warm, wet environment like Earth is now.

“Today it’s incredibly cold. The only thing that’s stable on the surface is water vapor, or snow and ice. But in the past, it was a different place… when you go very, very far back in time, there were standing lakes. There was snow and rainfall and an open hydrologic system.”