Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences
The failure of the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999 left NASA reluctant to press on with an optimistic sample return mission and the launch of a lander whose design was all too similar to the lost Polar Lander. Last spring, NASA cancelled the lander but kept the orbiter for the Mars Odyssey 2001 mission and, in July, postponed sample returns until 2011 in favor of the 2003 Mars Exploration twin rovers. Those who worked on the scrapped missions are now embarking on uncertain paths that involve a bit of luck and a lot of hope that their instruments will be incorporated into the new missions.
As one of the principal investigators for the science payload of the
original 2001 Mars Surveyor mission and 2003 sample return, Steven Squyres
of Cornell University had a lot to lose when those missions were erased.
Fortunately for Squyres, his team was involved in early investigations
of an airbag-deployed rover. When the old plans were scrapped, the air
bag-deployed rovers were on a list of about a hundred other ideas for future
Mars ventures intended to replace the cancelled missions.
NASA had to move fast if it was going to get plans underway to take advantage of the 2003 launch opportunity, when spacecraft can most easily be sent to Mars. His team’s rover and science payload made the cut and plans are now underway to build twin “robotic field geologists” for the 2003 mission. “My team was very lucky,” Squyres says. “There are several others whose instruments do not have a ride to Mars.” Squyres is now the principal investigator for the science payload for the 2003 mission.
David Kaplan is still working for NASA but his instrument was left to collect dust when the original 2003 mission was cancelled. Kaplan developed an instrument that would have produced rocket fuel — pure propellant-grade oxygen — from carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere. It was certified for flight but has now found what will probably be its permanent home: a controlled-environment storage facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Kaplan has since taken a year of leave from Johnson Space Center to work at NASA headquarters in the Office of Space Flight developing technologies for human trips to Mars. The next chance for his rocket fuel payload to hitch a ride to Mars is 2007. But by then, the payload he originally designed in 1997 will be out of date. “I’m quite certain they won’t take old payloads out of the vault,” he says.
Several other teams have developed instruments housed by cancelled landers. Thomas Meloy of West Virginia University was also a principal investigator for the cancelled Mars missions. The instruments he designed to determine the mineral composition of martian soil will not go to Mars in 2003 or 2005. He continues to work on these instruments with the hope that they might hitch a ride on the Mega Rover 2007 mission, but NASA officials have not guaranteed his work a spot on the spacecraft. Already in his 80s, Meloy has other concerns. “How can I know that I’ll live until 2011 or 2012 so that I’ll be able to publish all the data?” he asks. “But on the upside, we’ll have far better instruments [in 2007].”
To survive mission cancellations with the fewest bruises, it seems that building a specific instrument is not the safest way to go. Hap McSween of the University of Tennessee has spent his career studying martian meteorites and was one of the first tapped by NASA to become a part of its science team back in the early 1980s.
“I was at the right place at the right time. It was blind luck,” McSween says. Now that studying Mars has become more popular, it has become increasingly difficult to secure a spot in the planning for NASA’s Mars missions. Most of McSween’s involvement with NASA over the past years has been as a generalist on the science team, helping to interpret chemical and other data to determine the mineral composition of Mars. He will work on the Mars Odyssey 2001 mission interpreting mineralogy and petrology from thermal imaging data. What he learns will apply to the planned 2011 sample return.
But like others, McSween would like to see martian rocks delivered to Earth sooner. “I appreciate that we have to be very careful, but I’m really disappointed,” he says. “I’ll find something to do in the meantime. We all will.”