MAVEN and MOM Missions from NASA and India Plan Martian Science Collaboration in Orbit

MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and is due to blastoff on Nov. 18 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After years of hard work by dedicated science and engineering teams, a new pair of Mars orbiter science missions from Earth are in the final stages of prelaunch processing and are nearly set to blast off for the Red Planet in November.

If all goes well, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter and India’s MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) will “work together” to help solve the mysteries of Mars atmosphere, the chief MAVEN scientist told Universe Today at a NASA briefing today (Oct. 28).

“We plan to collaborate on some overlapping objectives,” Bruce Jakosky told me. Jakosky is MAVEN’s principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

MAVEN and MOM will join Earth’s armada of five operational orbiters and surface rovers currently exploring the Red Planet.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Spacecraft attached to the 4th stage of PSLV-C25 and ready for heat shield closure. It is slated to launch on Nov. 5, 2013. Credit: ISRO
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Spacecraft attached to the 4th stage of PSLV-C25 and ready for heat shield closure. It is slated to launch on Nov. 5, 2013. Credit: ISRO

MOM is India’s first mission to Mars. Its also first in line to this year’s Martian on ramp and is slated to lift off in barely one week on Nov. 5 atop the most powerful version of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket from a seaside launch pad in Srihanikota, India.

The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) MOM orbiter, also known as ‘Mangalyaan’, is the brainchild of ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft launches in three weeks on Nov. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from a seaside pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Both MAVEN and MOM will study the Red Planets atmosphere. Although they are independent and carrying different science payloads the two missions do have some common goals.

“There are some overlapping objectives between MAVEN and MOM,” Jakosky said.

“We have had some discussions with the MOM science team.”

Magnetometer science instrument boom juts out from MAVEN solar panel during launch processing inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Magnetometer science instrument boom juts out from MAVEN solar panel during launch processing inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Both orbiters are due to arrive at Mars in September 2014 after 10 month interplanetary cruises and will enter different elliptical orbits after main engine braking burns.

MAVEN is the first spacecraft from Earth devoted to investigating and understanding the upper atmosphere of Mars.

The purpose is to study specific processes and determine how and why Mars lost virtually all of its atmosphere billions of years ago and what effect that had on the history of climate change and habitability.

“The major questions about the history of Mars center on the history of its climate and atmosphere and how that’s influenced the surface, geology and the possibility for life,” said Jakosky.

“MAVEN will focus on understanding the history of the atmosphere, how the climate has changed through time, and how that influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential for habitability by microbes on Mars.”

“We don’t know the driver of the change.”

“Where did the water go and where did the carbon dioxide go from the early atmosphere? What were the mechanisms?”

“That’s what driving our exploration of Mars with MAVEN,” said Jakosky.

One of the significant differences between MOM and MAVEN regards methane detection – which is a potential marker for Martian life. Some 90% of Earth’s atmospheric methane derives from living organisms.

MOM has a methane sensor but not MAVEN.

“We just had to leave that one off to stay focused and to stay within the available resources ,” Jakosky told me.

MAVEN carries nine sensors in three instrument suites.

The Particles and Fields Package, provided by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., contains six instruments to characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of Mars. The Remote Sensing Package, built by CU/LASP, will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, built by Goddard, will measure the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere.

MOM’s science complement comprises the tri color Mars Color Camera to image the planet and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos; the Lyman Alpha Photometer to measure the abundance of hydrogen and deuterium and understand the planets water loss process; a Thermal Imaging Spectrometer to map surface composition and mineralogy, the MENCA mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric composition, and the Methane Sensor for Mars to measure traces of potential atmospheric methane down to the ppm level.

Graphic outlines India’s first ever probe to explore the Red Planet known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).  Launch is set for Nov. 5 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota, India. Credit: ISRO
Graphic outlines India’s first ever probe to explore the Red Planet known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Launch is set for Nov. 5 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota, India. Credit: ISRO

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” Jakosky told me.

“We agreed on the value of collaboration and will hold real discussions at a later time,” he noted.

NASA is providing key communications and navigation support to ISRO and MOM through the agency’s trio of huge tracking antennas in the Deep Space Network (DSN).

Over the course of its one-Earth-year primary mission, MAVEN will observe all of Mars’ latitudes at altitudes ranging from 93 miles to more than 3,800 miles.

MAVEN will execute five deep dip maneuvers during the first year, descending to an altitude of 78 miles. This marks the lower boundary of the planet’s upper atmosphere.

MAVEN has sufficient fuel reserves on board to continue observations for more than a decade.

The spacecraft will function as an indispensible orbital relay by transmitting surface science data through the “Electra” from NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity rovers as well as the planned 2020 rover.

Stay tuned here for continuing MAVEN and MOM news and my launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press center.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MAVEN, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 15-19: “MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

India’s First Mars Mission Set to Blast off Seeking Methane Signature

Graphic outlines India’s first ever probe to explore the Red Planet known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). It could liftoff as early as Oct. 28 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota, India. Credit: ISRO

India is gearing up for its first ever space undertaking to the Red Planet – dubbed the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM – which is the brainchild of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO.

Among other objectives, MOM will conduct a highly valuable search for potential signatures of Martian methane – which could stem from either living or non living sources. The historic Mars bound probe also serves as a forerunner to bolder robotic exploration goals.

If all goes well India would become only the 4th nation or entity from Earth to survey Mars up close with spacecraft, following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) orbiter, also known as ‘Mangalyaan’, is slated to blast off as early as Oct. 28 atop India’s highly reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from a seaside launch pad in Srihanikota, India.

India’s first ever probe to explore the Red Planet known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is due to liftoff as early as Oct. 28 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota, India. Credit: ISRO
India’s first ever probe to explore the Red Planet known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is due to liftoff as early as Oct. 28 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota, India. Credit: ISRO

MOM is outfitted with an array of five science instruments including a multi color imager and a methane gas sniffer to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both biological and geological sources.

ISRO officials are also paying close attention to the local weather to ascertain if remnants from Tropical Cyclone Phaillin or another developing weather system in the South Pacific could impact liftoff plans.

The launch target date will be set following a readiness review on Friday, said ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan according to Indian press reports.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft being prepared for a prelaunch test at Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota. Credit: ISRO
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft being prepared for a prelaunch test at Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota. Credit: ISRO

‘Mangalyaan’ is undergoing final prelaunch test and integration at ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota on the east coast of Andhra Pradesh state following shipment from ISRO’s Bangalore assembly facility on Oct. 3.

ISRO has already assembled the more powerful XL extended version of the four stage PSLV launcher at Srihairkota.

MOM’s launch window extends about three weeks until Nov. 19 – which roughly coincides with the opening of the launch window for NASA’s next mission to Mars, the MAVEN orbiter.

The upcoming Nov. 18 blastoff of NASA’s new MAVEN Mars orbiter was threatened by the US Federal Government shutdown when all launch processing work ceased on Oct. 1.  Spacecraft preps had now resumed on Oct. 3 after receiving an emergency exemption. MAVEN  was unveiled to the media, including Universe Today, inside the cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The upcoming Nov. 18 blastoff of NASA’s new MAVEN Mars orbiter was threatened by the US Federal Government shutdown when all launch processing work ceased on Oct. 1. Spacecraft preps had now resumed on Oct. 3 after receiving an emergency exemption. MAVEN was unveiled to the media, including Universe Today, inside the cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

MAVEN’s on time blastoff from Florida on Nov. 18, had been threatened by the chaos caused by the partial US government shutdown that finally ended this morning (Oct. 17), until the mission was granted an ‘emergency exemption’ due to the critical role it will play in relaying data from NASA’s ongoing pair of surface rovers – Curiosity and Opportunity.

NASA is providing key communications and navigation support to ISRO and MOM through the agency’s trio of huge tracking antennas in the Deep Space Network (DSN).

As India’s initial mission to Mars, ISRO says that the mission’s objectives are both technological and scientific to demonstrate the nation’s capability to design an interplanetary mission and carry out fundamental Red Planet research with a suite of indigenously built instruments.

MOM’s science complement comprises includes the tri color Mars Color Camera to image the planet and its two moon, Phobos and Diemos; the Lyman Alpha Photometer to measure the abundance of hydrogen and deuterium and understand the planets water loss process; a Thermal Imaging Spectrometer to map surface composition and mineralogy, the MENCA mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric composition, and the Methane Sensor for Mars to measure traces of potential atmospheric methane down to the ppm level.

It will be of extremely great interest to compare any methane detection measurements from MOM to those ongoing from NASA’s Curiosity rover – which found ground level methane to be essentially nonexistent – and Europe’s planned 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.

MOM’s design builds on spacecraft heritage from India’s Chandrayaan 1 lunar mission that investigated the Moon from 2008 to 2009.

The 44 meter (144 ft) PSLV will launch MOM into an initially elliptical Earth parking orbit of 248 km x 23,000 km. A series of six orbit raising burns will eventually dispatch MOM on a trajectory to Mars by late November, assuming an Oct. 28 liftoff.

Following a 300 day interplanetary cruise phase, the do or die orbital insertion engine will fire on September 14, 2014 and place MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit.

NASA’s MAVEN is also due to arrive in Mars orbit during September 2014.

The $69 Million ‘Mangalyaan’ mission is expected to continue gathering measurements at the Red Planet for at least six months and perhaps ten months or longer.

Ken Kremer

Researchers Say ExoMars Could Detect Bacteria on Mars — Past or Present

An artist's conception of the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover, scheduled to launch in 2018. Credit: ESA

Signs of life on the Martian surface would still be visible even after bacteria were zapped with a potentially fatal dose of radiation, according to new research — if life ever existed there, of course.

Using “model” bacteria expected to resemble what microbes could look like on the Red Planet, the research team used a Raman spectrometer — an instrument type that the ExoMars rover will carry in 2018 — to see how the signal from the bacteria change as they get exposed to more and more radiation.

The bottom line is the study authors believe the European Space Agency rover’s instrument would be capable of seeing bacteria on Mars — from the past or the present — if the bacteria were there in the first place.

Readings from the NASA Mars Curiosity rover recently found that humans on the surface of Mars would have a higher risk of cancer due to the increased radiation level on the surface. Mars does not have a global magnetic field to deflect radiation from solar flares, nor a thick atmosphere to shelter the surface.

The new study still found the signature of life in these model microbes at 15,000 Gray of radiation, which is thousands of times higher than the radiation dose that would kill a human. At 10 times more, or 150,000 Gray, the signature is erased.

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

“What we’ve been able to show is how the tell-tale signature of life is erased as the energetic radiation smashes up the cells’ molecules,” stated Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiology researcher at the University of Leicester who led the study.

Specifically, the spectrometer detected carotenoid molecules, which can be used to protect a microorganism against difficult conditions in the environment. The research teams stated that these cartenoids have been proposed as “good biosignatures of life” on Mars.

This image shows a river that sprang from a past glacier from an unnamed crater in Mars’ middle latitudes. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS
This image shows a river that sprang from a past glacier from an unnamed crater in Mars’ middle latitudes. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

“In this study we’ve used a bacterium with unrivaled resistance to radiation as a model for the type of bacteria we might find signs of on Mars. What we want to explore now is how other signs of life might be distorted or degraded by irradiation,” Dartnell added. “This is crucial work for understanding what signs to look for to detect remnants of ancient life on Mars that has been exposed to the bombardment of cosmic radiation for very long periods of time.”

No one is sure if Mars has life right now on its surface, or ever did in the past. The Mars Curiosity rover is equipped to look at past environmental conditions on the planet, but is not designed to look for life itself.

Many scientists believe flowing water existed on the planet, though, based on rock findings from three NASA rovers and the appearance of channels, streams and perhaps even oceans as spotted by orbiting satellites. Some scientists say the atmosphere of Mars was much thicker in the past, but it then dissipated for reasons that are still being investigated. Water, however, does not necessarily point to life.

The research was presented at the European Planetary Science Congress on Monday. Universe Today has reached out to Dartnell to see if the work is peer-reviewed. His website lists several published research articles he wrote on similar topics.

Edit: Dartnell says that research was published in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry in 2012, and you can read the paper here.

Source: European Planetary Science Congress

Haiku for Mars: Winners Selected for MAVEN Mission

A DVD bound for Mars... (Courtesy of Lockheed Martin/LASP).

Fans of Mars and spaceflight waxed poetic as the haiku selected to travel to Mars aboard the MAVEN spacecraft were announced earlier this month.

The contest received 12,530 valid entries from May 1st through the contest cutoff date of July 1st. Students learned about Mars, planetary exploration and the MAVEN mission as they composed haiku ranging from the personal to the insightful to the hilarious.

“The contest has resonated with people in ways that I never imagined! Both new and accomplished poets wrote poetry to reflect their views of Earth and Mars, their feelings about space exploration, their loss of loved ones who have passed on, and their sense of humor,” said Stephanie Renfrow, MAVEN Education & Public Outreach & Going to Mars campaign lead.

A total of 39,100 votes were cast in the contest; all entries receiving more than 2 votes (1,100 in all) will be carried on a DVD affixed to the MAVEN spacecraft bound for Martian orbit.

Five poems received more than a thousand votes. Among these were such notables as that of one 8th grader from Denver Colorado, who wrote;

                Phobos & Deimos

                          Moons orbiting around Mars

                                       Snared by Gravity

Another notable entry which was among the poems sited for special recognition by the MAVEN team was that of Allison Swets of Michigan;

                 My body can’t walk

                            My mouth can’t make words but I

                                         Soar to Mars today

377 artwork entries were also selected to fly aboard MAVEN as well.

Didn’t get picked? There’s still time to send your name aboard MAVEN along with thousands that have already been submitted. You’ve got until September 10!

Part of NASA’s discontinued Scout-class of missions, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, or MAVEN, is due to launch out of Cape Canaveral on November 18th, 2013. Selected in 2008, MAVEN has a target cost of less than $500 million dollars US, not including launch carrier services atop an Atlas V rocket in a 401 flight configuration.

(Credit: NASA).
An artist’s concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center).

The Phoenix Lander was another notable Scout-class mission that was extremely successful, concluding in 2008.

Principal investigator for MAVEN is the University of Boulder at Colorado’s Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

The use of poetry to gain public interest in the mission is appropriate, as MAVEN seeks to solve the riddle that is the Martian atmosphere. How did Mars lose its atmosphere over time? What role does the solar wind play in stripping it away? And what is the possible source of that anomalous methane detected by Mars Global Surveyor from 1999 to 2004?

MAVEN is based on the design of the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. It will carrying an armada of instruments, including a Neutral Gas & Ion Mass Spectrometer, a Particle and Field Package with several analyzers, and a Remote Sensing Package built by LASP.

MAVEN just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this month for launch processing and mating to its launch vehicle. Launch will be out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 18th with a 2 hour window starting at 1:47 PM EST/ 18:47 UT.

MAVEN spacecraft at a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver, Colo. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).
MAVEN spacecraft at a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver, Colo. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).

Assuming that MAVEN launches at the beginning of its 20 day window, it will reach Mars for an orbital insertion on September 22, 2014. MAVEN will orbit the Red Planet in an elliptical 150 kilometre by 6,200 kilometre orbit, joining the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the European Space Agencies’ Mars Express and the aging Mars Odyssey orbiter, which has been surveying Mars since 2001.

The window for an optimal launch to Mars using a minimal amount of fuel opens every 24 to 26 months. During the last window of opportunity in 2011, the successful Mars Curiosity rover and the ill-fated Russian mission Phobos-Grunt sought to make the trip.

This time around, MAVEN will be joined by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on October 21st. If successful, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will join Russia, ESA & NASA in nations that have successfully launched missions to Mars.

This window comes approximately six months before Martian opposition, which next occurs on April 8th, 2014. In 2016, ESA’s ExoMars Mars Orbiter and NASA’s InSight Lander will head to Mars. And 2018 may see the joint ESA/NASA ExoMars rover and… if we’re lucky, Dennis Tito’s proposed crewed Mars 2018 flyby.

Interestingly, MAVEN also arrives in Martian orbit just a month before the close 123,000 kilometre passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, although as of this time, there’s no word if it will carry out any observations of the comet.

These launches will also represent the first planetary missions to depart Earth since 2011. You can follow the mission as @MAVEN2Mars on Twitter. We’ll also be attending the MAVEN Conference and Workshop this weekend in Boulder and tweeting our adventures (wi-fi willing) as @Astroguyz. We also plan on attending the November launch in person as well!

And in the end, it was perhaps for the good of all mankind that our own rule-breaking (but pithy) Mars haiku didn’t get selected:

                        Rider of the Martian Atmosphere

                                  Taunting Bradbury’s golden-bee armed  Martians 

                                       While dodging the Great Galactic Ghoul

Hey, never let it be said that science writers make great poets!

Final Construction Starts for Europe’s 2016 Methane Sniffing Mars Mission

The European/Russian ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will launch in 2016 and sniff the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane which could originate for either biological or geological mechanisms. Credit: ESA

Has life ever existed on Mars? Or anywhere beyond Earth?

Answering that question is one of the most profound scientific inquiries of our time.

Europe and Russia have teamed up for a bold venture named ExoMars that’s set to blast off in search of Martian life in about two and a half years.

Determining if life ever originated on the Red Planet is the primary goal of the audacious two pronged ExoMars missions set to launch in 2016 & 2018 in a partnership between the European and Russian space agencies, ESA and Roscosmos.

In a major milestone announced today (June 17) at the Paris Air Show, ESA signed the implementing contract with Thales Alenia Space, the industrial prime contractor, to start the final construction phase for the 2016 Mars mission.

“The award of this contract provides continuity to the work of the industrial team members of Thales Alenia Space on this complex mission, and will ensure that it remains on track for launch in January 2016,” noted Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

The ambitious 2016 ExoMars mission comprises of both an orbiter and a lander- namely the methane sniffing Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the piggybacked Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).

ExoMars 2016 will be Europe’s first spacecraft dispatched to the Red Planet since the 2003 blast off of the phenomenally successful Mars Express mission – which just celebrated its 10th anniversary since launch.

Methane (CH4) gas is the simplest organic molecule and very low levels have reportedly been detected in the thin Martian atmosphere. But the data are not certain and its origin is not clear cut.

Methane could be a marker either for active living organisms today or it could originate from non life geologic processes. On Earth more than 90% of the methane originates from biological sources.

The ExoMars 2016 orbiter will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane.

The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European landing technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission slated for 2018.

The 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will carry and deploy the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module to the surface of Mars. Credit: ESA-AOES Medialab
The 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will carry and deploy the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module to the surface of Mars. Credit: ESA-AOES Medialab

The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project until hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians forced NASA to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of detailed work.

Elements of the ExoMars program 2016-2018.  Credit: ESA
Elements of the ExoMars program 2016-2018. Credit: ESA
Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of planetary launches scheduled for January 2016 and May 2018.

NASA does not have the funds to launch another Mars rover until 2020 at the earliest – and continuing budget cuts threaten even the 2020 launch date.

NASA will still have a small role in the ExoMars project by funding several science instruments.

The ExoMars missions along with NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity Mars rovers will pave the way for Mars Sample Return missions in the 2020’s and eventual Humans voyages to the Red Planet in the 2030’s.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

Will Russia Rescue ExoMars?

The ExoMars program. Credit: ESA

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After NASA was forced to back out the joint ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency due to budget constraints, ESA went looking for help with the planned multi-vehicle Mars mission. Now, reportedly the Head of Roscosmos Vladimir Popovkin met with Director General of the ESA, Jean-Jacques Dordain last week, and the two signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to make ExoMars a reality.

“The sides consider this project feasible and promising,” Popovkin’s spokeswoman Anna Vedishcheva was quoted in Ria Novosti. “The sides are to sign the deal by year-end.”

Russia’s participation in the project was also approved by the space council of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The ExoMars program was slated to send an orbiter to Mars in 2016 and a rover in 2018, but after NASA pulled out of its part of the bargain — of providing several science instruments and an Atlas launch vehicle – ESA knew they could not do the entire mission on their own. Last fall, when it was becoming apparent that NASA’s ability to participate was in jeopardy, Dordain extended an invitation to Russia, and in turn Roscosmos officials hinted they might be interested in joining, offering to provide the use of their Proton rockets for the launches. The two space agencies then had preliminary talks at the Ariane 5 launch at Kourou, French Guiana in March, 2012.

Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said that Russia’s financing of ExoMars could be partially covered by insurance payments of 1.2 billion rubles (about $40.7 million) for the lost Phobos-Grunt sample return mission that would have gone to the Martian moon Phobos.

Artist concept of the ExoMars/Trace Gas Orbiter mission. Credit: NASA

The details of the new ExoMars partnership are yet to be worked out, but the ESA/NASA partnership would have sent the Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for atmospheric methane — a potential signature for microbial life – as well as an advanced astrobiology rover to drill into the surface in 2018, with the hopes of determining if life ever evolved on Mars.

Unsurprisingly, the potential deal with Russia comes as a huge relief to European space scientists who have spent years working on ExoMars. Journalist Paul Sutherland quoted UK scientist John Zarnecki of the Open University, as saying, “It looks like the cavalry has come riding over the horizon to save us, but this time they are dressed in Russian uniforms. There will be a lot scientists in universities and research institutes throughout Europe who will be very relieved to hear this news. Otherwise it seemed that several years work preparing instruments for this mission was going to go down the drain.”

Sources: Sen.com, Ria Novosti

Curiosity Halfway to Red Planet Touchdown

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Spacecraft Cruising to Mars. Guided by the stars, Curiosity has reached the halfway point of its interplanetary cruise phase from the Earth to Mars in between launch on Nov. 26, 2011 and final approach in August 2012. MSL will use the stars to navigate. The spacecraft includes a disc-shaped solar powered cruise stage (on the left) attached to the aeroshell (right). Curiosity and the descent stage are tucked inside the aeroshell. Along the way to Mars, the cruise stage will perform six trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the spacecraft's path toward its final, precise landing site on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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As of today, NASA’s car sized Curiosity rover has reached the halfway point in her 352 million mile (567 million km) journey to Mars – No fooling on April 1, 2012.

It’s T Minus 126 days until Curiosity smashes into the Martian atmosphere to brave the hellish “6 Minutes of Terror” – and, if all goes well, touch down inside Gale Crater at the foothills of a Martian mountain taller than the tallest in the continental United States – namely Mount Rainier.

Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The one-ton behemoth is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.

The Curiosity Mars Science laboratory (MSL) rover was launched from sunny Florida on Nov. 26, 2011 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket for an 8.5 month interplanetary cruise from the Earth to Mars and is on course to land on the Red Planet early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2012 EDT and Universal Time (or Aug. 5 PDT).

Curiosity’s Position in Space on April 1, 2012 - Halfway to Mars
This roadmap shows Curiosity's flight path through the Solar System - From Earth to Mars during the 8.5 month interplanetary cruise. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On March 26, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., successfully ignited the spacecrafts thrusters for the second of six planned trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the robot’s flight path during the long journey to achieve a pinpoint landing beside the Martian mountain.

“It is satisfying to get the second maneuver under our belts and know we are headed in the right direction,” said JPL’s Erisa Hines, systems lead for the maneuver. “The cruise system continues to perform very well.”

This maneuver was one-seventh as much as the flight’s first course adjustment, on Jan. 11. The cruise stage is equipped with eight thrusters grouped into two sets of four that fire as the entire spacecraft spins at two rotations per minute. The thruster firings change the velocity of the spacecraft in two ways – along the direction of the axis of rotation and also perpendicular to the axis. Altogether there were more than 60 pulsing maneuvers spaced about 10 seconds apart.

“The purpose is to put us on a trajectory to the point in the Mars atmosphere where we need to be for a safe and accurate landing,” said Mau Wong, maneuver analyst at JPL.

Atlas V rocket and Curiosity Mars rover poised at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to Nov. 26, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer

Marking another crucial milestone, the flight team has also powered up and checked the status of all 10 MSL science instruments – and all are nominal.

“The types of testing varied by instrument, and the series as whole takes us past the important milestone of confirming that all the instruments survived launch,” said Betina Pavri of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., science payload test engineer for the mission. “These checkouts provide a valuable calibration and characterization opportunity for the instruments, including camera dark images and a measurement of zero pressure in the vacuum of space for the rover weather station’s pressure sensor.”

Ever since it was the first of MSL’s science instruments to be switched on three months ago, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has been collecting valuable measurements about the potentially lethal radiation environment in space and acting as a stunt double for determining the potential health effects on future human travelers to Mars.

RAD has been collecting data on the recent wave of extremely powerful solar flares erupting from the sun.

Curiosity has another 244 million kilometers to go over the next 4 months.

All hopes ride on Curiosity as America’s third and last generation of Mars rovers.

Devastating and nonsensical funding cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science budget have forced NASA to cancel participation in the 2018 ExoMars lander mission that had been joint planned with ESA, the European Space Agency. ESA now plans to forge ahead with Russian participation.

Stay tuned

Simulated view to Mars over the shoulder of Curiosity on 1 April 2012 - from current location halfway to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read Ken’s recent Curiosity feature here:
A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars

NASAs Proposed ‘InSight’ Lander would Peer to the Center of Mars in 2016

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA

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A Phoenix-like lander that would mine the deepest hole yet into Mars– to a depth of 5 meters – and unveil the nature of the mysterious deep interior and central core of the Red Planet is under consideration by NASA for a 2016 launch and sports a nifty new name – InSight.

The stationary “InSight” lander would be an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s proven Phoenix spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt told Universe Today. Banerdt is the Principal Investigator of the proposed InSight mission.

“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , Calif, told me. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.

“The robotic arm is similar (but not identical) to the Phoenix arm.”

Mars Interior
Insight’s goal is to investigate and deduce the nature of the interior of the Red Planet. Credit: JPL/NASA

However, the landing site and science goals for InSight are quite different from Phoenix.

InSight will have an entirely new suite of three science instruments, including two from Europe, designed to peer to the center of Mars and detect the fingerprints of the processes by which the terrestrial planets formed. It will determine if there is any seismic activity, the amount of heat flow from the interior, the size of Mars core and whether the core is liquid or solid.

NASA’s twin GRAIL lunar gravity probes are set to begin their own investigation into the interior and core of Earth’s Moon in early March 2012, and several science team members are common to GRAIL and InSight.

“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.

Phoenix successfully landed in the frigid northern polar regions of Mars in 2008 in search of potential habitats for life and quickly discovered water ice and salty soils that could be favorable for the genesis and support of extraterrestrial life.

3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice
Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. Proposed Mars InSight mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander from scratch to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

InSight will intentionally land in a far warmer and sunnier location nearer the moderate climate of the equator to enable a projected lifetime of 2 years (or 1 Mars year) vs. the 5 months survival of Phoenix extremely harsh arctic touchdown zone.

“Our planned landing site is in Elysium Planitia,” Banerdt told me. “It was chosen for optimizing engineering safety margins for landing and power.”

The more equatorial landing site affords far more sun for the life giving solar arrays to power the instruments and electronics.

“We have global objectives and can do our science anywhere on the planet.”

Elysium Planitia is not too far from the landing sites of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers. The Elysium Mons volcano is also in the general area, but it’s a long way from precise site selection.

InSight is a geophysical lander targeted to delve deep beneath the surface into the Martian interior, check its “vital signs”; like “pulse” though seismology, “temperature”, though a heat flow probe, and “reflexes”, through precision tracking.

The purpose is to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: How were the planets created?

InSight will accomplish much of its science investigations through experiments sitting directly in contact with the Martian surface. The robotic arm will pluck two of the instruments from the lander deck and place them onto Mars.

“The arm will pick the SEIS seismometer and HP3 heat flow probe off the deck and place each on the ground next to the lander. The arm doesn’t have a drill, but the heat flow probe itself will burrow down as deep as 5 meters,” Banerdt elaborated.

The third experiment named RISE (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment) is to be provided by JPL and will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of Mars planetary rotation and elucidate clues to its interior structure and composition.

Right now on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover is conducting a Doppler radio tracking experiment similar to what is planned for RISE, but InSight will have a big advantage according to Banerdt.

“The RISE experiment will be very similar to what we are doing right now on Opportunity, but will be able to do much better, said Banerdt. “The differences are that we will get more tracking every week (Opportunity is power-limited during the winter months; that’s why she is currently stationary!) and will make measurements for an entire Mars year – we will likely only get a handful of months from Opportunity.”

Insight will also be equipped with 2 cameras and make some weather measurements.

“We have a camera on the arm and one fixed to the deck, both primarily to support placing the instruments on the surface, although they will be able to scan the landscape around the spacecraft. Both are Black & White,” Banerdt told me.

“We will measure pressure, temperature and wind, mostly to support noise analysis on the seismic data, but will also supply information on the weather.”

Mars has the same basic internal structure as the Earth and other terrestrial (rocky) planets. It is large enough to have pressures equivalent to those throughout the Earth's upper mantle, and it has a core with a similar fraction of its mass. In contrast, the pressure even near the center of the Moon barely reach that just below the Earth's crust and it has a tiny, almost negligible core. The size of Mars indicates that it must have undergone many of the same separation and crystallization processes that formed the Earth's crust and core during early planetary formation. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is one of three missions vying to be selected for flight in NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of low cost NASA missions to understand the solar system by exploring planets, moons, and small bodies such as comets and asteroids. All three mission teams are required to submit concept study reports to NASA on March 19.

Banerdt’s team is working hard to finalize the concept study report.

“It describes the mission design as we have refined it over the past 9 months since the NASA Step-1 selection.”

So there is no guarantee that InSight will fly. Because of severe budget cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NASA had to cancel its scheduled participation in two other Mars missions dubbed ExoMars and jointed planned with ESA, the European Space Agency, for launch in 2016 and 2018.

A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity carries a Lincoln Penny on the calibration target to be used by a camera at the end of the robotic arm. The calibration target for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera is attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Inset shows the location of the calibration target. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is carrying a vintage Lincoln penny along for the long interplanetary journey to Mars – and it’s not to open the first Martian savings account.

Scientists will use the century old Lincoln penny – minted back in 1909 – as a modern age calibration target for one of Curiosity’s five powerful science cameras attached to the end of the hefty, 7 foot (2.1 meter) long robotic arm.

The car sized rover is on course to touchdown at the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater in just 161 days on Aug. 6, 2012.

So far Curiosity has traveled 244 million kilometers since blasting off on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida and has another 322 million kilometers to go to the Red Planet.

The copper penny is bundled to a shoulder joint on the rovers arm along with the other elements of the calibration target, including color chips, a metric standardized bar graphic, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration.

The whole target is about the size of a smart phone and looks a lot like an eye vision chart in an ophthalmologist’s office. And it serves a similar purpose, which will be to check the performance of Curiosity eyes – specifically the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera located at the terminus of the robotic arm.

Curiosity’s Calibration Target
Two instruments at the end of the robotic arm on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will use calibration targets attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MAHLI will conduct close-up inspections of Martian rocks and soil. It can show tiny details, finer than a human hair.

The term “hand lens” in MAHLI’s name refers to the standard practice by field geologists’ of carrying a hand lens during expeditions for close up, magnified inspection of rocks they find along the way. So it’s also critical to pack various means of calibration so that researchers can interpret their results and put them into proper perspective.

MAHLI can also focus on targets over a wide range of distances near and far, from about a finger’s-width away out to the Red Planets horizon, which in this case means the mountains and rim of the breathtaking Gale Crater landing site.

“When a geologist takes pictures of rock outcrops she is studying, she wants an object of known scale in the photographs,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, which supplied the camera to NASA.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC
Curiosity with robotic arm extended. Calibration target is located at a shoulder joint on the arm. Photo taken just before encapsulation for 8 month long interplanetary Martian Journey and touchdown inside Gale Crater. Credit: Ken Kremer

The target features a collection of marked black bars in a wide range of labeled sizes to correlate calibration images to each image taken by Curiosity.

“If it is a whole cliff face, she’ll ask a person to stand in the shot. If it is a view from a meter or so away, she might use a rock hammer. If it is a close-up, as the MAHLI can take, she might pull something small out of her pocket. Like a penny.”

Edgett donated the special Lincoln penny with funds from his own pocket. The 1909 “VDB” cent stems from the very first year that Lincoln pennies were minted and also marks the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The VDB initials of the coin’s designer – Victor David Brenner — are on the reverse side. In mint condition the 1909 Lincoln VDB copper penny has a value of about $20.

The Lincoln penny in this photograph is part of a camera calibration target attached to NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The penny is on the MAHLI calibration target as a tip of the hat to geologists’ informal practice of placing a coin or other object of known scale in their photographs. A more formal practice is to use an object with scale marked in millimeters, centimeters or meters,” Edgett said. “Of course, this penny can’t be moved around and placed in MAHLI images; it stays affixed to the rover.”

“Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image,” Edgett said.

“The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars. Will it change color? Will it corrode? Will it get pitted by windblown sand?”

MAHLI’s calibration target also features a display of six patches of pigmented silicone to assist in interpreting color and brightness in the images. Five of them are leftovers from Spirit and Opportunity. The sixth has a fluorescent pigment that glows red when exposed to ultraviolet light, allows checking of an ultraviolet light source on MAHLI. The fluorescent material was donated to the MAHLI team by Spectra Systems, Inc., Providence, R.I.

Three-dimensional calibration of the MSL images will be done using the penny and a stair-stepped area at the bottom of the target.

“The importance of calibration is to allow data acquired on Mars to be compared reliably to data acquired on Earth,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Curiosity is a 1 ton (900 kg) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots. The science payload is 15 times heavier than the twin robots.

Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA could only afford to build one rover this time.

Curiosity MSL location on 27 Feb 2012. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will be NASA’s last Mars rover since the 4th generation ExoMars rover due to liftoff in 2018 was just cancelled by the Obama Administration as part of a deep slash to NASA’s Planetary Science budget.

Experts React to Obama Slash to NASA’s Mars and Planetary Science Exploration

Earth’s next Mars rover will NOT be made in USA. President Obama has killed NASA funding for the ExoMars Rover joint project by NASA and ESA planned for 2018 Launch and designed to search for evidence of life. Credit: ESA - Annotation: Ken Kremer

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Earth’s next Mars Rover – NOT Made in USA

Just days after President Obama met with brilliant High School students at the 2012 White House Science Fair to celebrate their winning achievements and encourage America’s Youth to study science and take up careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) technical fields, the Obama Administration has decided on deep budgets cuts slashing away the very NASA science programs that would inspire those same students to shoot for the Stars and Beyond and answer the question – Are We Alone ?

Last year, the Obama Administration killed Project Constellation, NASA’s Human Spaceflight program to return American astronauts to the Moon. This year, the President has killed NASA’s ExoMars Robotic Spaceflight program aimed at dispatching two ambitious missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018 to search for signs of life.

Both ExoMars probes involved a joint new collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) carefully crafted to share costs in hard times and get the most bang for the buck – outlined in my earlier Universe Today story, here.

Expert Scientists and Policy makers have been voicing their opinions.

President Obama meets America’s brightest Young Rocket Scientists
President Barack Obama hosted the winning science fair students from a range of nationwide competitions at the 2nd White House Science Fair on February 7, 2012. The ExoMars missions were eliminated from the NASA budget announced on Feb. 13, 2012.

All of NASA’s “Flagship” Planetary Science missions have now been cancelled in the 2013 Fiscal Year Budget proposed on Feb. 13, and others missions have also been curtailed due to the severe economy.

“There is no room in the current budget proposal from the President for new Flagship missions anywhere,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science at a NASA budget briefing for the media on Feb. 13.

ESA is now looking to partner with Russia as all American participation in ExoMars is erased due to NASA’ s forced pull out.

On Feb. 13, NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget was announced and the Obama Administration carved away nearly half the Mars mission budget. Altogether, funding for NASA’s Mars and Planetary missions in the Fiscal 2013 budget would be sliced by $300 million – from $1.5 Billion this year to $1.2 Billion in 2013. NASA was forced to gut the Mars program to pay for the cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Mars rover scientist Prof. Jim Bell of Arizona State University and President of The Planetary Society (TPS) told Universe Today that “no one expects increases”, but cuts of this magnitude are “cause for concern”.

NASA’s robotic missions to Mars and other solar system bodies have been highly successful, resulted in fundamental scientific breakthroughs and are wildly popular with students and the general public.

“With these large proposed cuts to the NASA Mars exploration program, there will be a lot of cause for concern,” said Bell.

“The Mars program has been one of NASA’s crown jewels over the past 15 years, both in terms of science return on investment, and in terms of public excitement and engagement in NASA’s mission. It would also represent an unfortunate retreat from the kind of international collaboration in space exploration that organizations like The Planetary Society so strongly support.”

NASA Budget Cuts in Fiscal Year 2013 will force NASA to kill participation in the joint ESA/NASA collaboration to send two Astrobiology related missions to orbit and land rovers on Mars in 2016 and 2018- designed to search for evidence of Life. Credit: ESA - Annotation: Ken Kremer

Bell and other scientists feel that any cuts should be balanced among NASA programs, not aimed only at one specific area.

“Certainly no one expects increasing budgets in these austere times, and it is not useful or appropriate to get into a battle of “my science is better than your science” among the different NASA Divisions and Programs.” Bell told me.

“However, it would be unfortunate if the burden of funding cuts were to befall one of NASA’s most successful and popular programs in a disproportionate way compared to other programs. As Ben Franklin said, “We should all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.”

Bell added that science minded organizations should work with Congress to influence the debate over the coming months.

“Of course, this would only be an initial proposal for the FY13 and beyond budget. Over the winter, spring, and summer many professional and public organizations, like TPS, will be working with Congress to advocate a balanced program of solar system exploration that focuses on the most important science goals as identified in the recent NRC Planetary Decadal Survey, as well as the most exciting and publicly compelling missions that are supported by the public–who ultimately are the ones paying for these missions.”

“Let’s hope that we can all find a productive and pragmatic way to continue to explore Mars, the outer solar system, and our Universe beyond,” Bell concluded.

“The impact of the cuts … will be to immediately terminate the Mars deal with the Europeans,” said Scott Hubbard, of Stanford University and a former NASA planetary scientist who revived the agency’s Mars exploration program after failures in 1999, to the Washington Post. “It’s a scientific tragedy and a national embarrassment.”

“I encourage whoever made this decision to ask around; everyone on Earth wants to know if there is life on other worlds,” Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, said in a statement. “When you cut NASA’s budget in this way, you’re losing sight of why we explore space in the first place.”

“There is no other country or agency that can do what NASA does—fly extraordinary flagship missions in deep space and land spacecraft on Mars.” Bill Nye said. “If this budget is allowed to stand, the United States will walk away from decades of greatness in space science and exploration. But it will lose more than that. The U.S. will lose expertise, capability, and talent. The nation will lose the ability to compete in one of the few areas in which it is still the undisputed number one.”

Ed Weiler is NASA’s recently retired science mission chief (now replaced by Grunsfeld) and negotiated the ExoMars program with ESA. Weiler actually quit NASA specifically in opposition to the Mars Program cuts ordered by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and had these comments for CBS News;

“To me, it’s bizarro world,” Weiler said an interview with CBS News. “Why would you do this? The President of the United States, President Obama, declared Mars to be the ultimate destination for human exploration. Obviously, before you send humans to the vicinity of Mars or even to land on Mars, you want to know as much about the planet as you possibly can. … You need a sample return mission. The president also established a space policy a few years ago which had the concept of encouraging all agencies to have more and more foreign collaboration, to share the costs and get more for the same bucks.”

“Two years ago, because of budget cuts in the Mars program, I had to appeal to Europe to merge our programs. … That process took two long years of very delicate negotiations. We thought we were following the president’s space policy exactly. Congressional reaction was very positive about our activities. You put those factors in place and you have to ask, why single out Mars? I don’t have an answer.”

Space Analysts and Political leaders also weighed in:

“The president’s budget is just a proposal,” said Howard McCurdy, a space-policy specialist at American University in Washington to the Christian Science Monitor.

The cuts “reflect the new reality” in which the economy, budget deficits, and the federal debt have elbowed their way to the top of Washington’s agenda, McCurdy adds.

“You don’t cut spending for critical scientific research endeavors that have immeasurable benefit to the nation and inspire the human spirit of exploration we all have,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.). Texas is home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who represents the district that’s home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), released this statement following his meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to discuss the agency’s 2013 budget proposal:

“Today I met with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to express my dismay over widespread reports that NASA’s latest budget proposes to dramatically reduce the planetary science program, and with it, ground breaking missions to Mars and outer planetary bodies like Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, and to inform him of my vehement opposition to such a move.”

“America’s unique expertise in designing and flying deep-space missions is a priceless national asset and the Mars program, one of our nation’s scientific crown jewels, has been a spectacular success that has pushed the boundaries of human understanding and technological innovation, while also boosting American prestige worldwide and driving our children to pursue science and engineering degrees in college.

“As I told the Administrator during our meeting, I oppose these ill-considered cuts and I will do everything in my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in space exploration.”

In an interview with the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Schiff said, “What they’re proposing will be absolutely devastating to planetary science and the Mars program. I’m going to be fighting them tooth and nail. Unfortunately if this is the direction the administration is heading, it will definitely hurt JPL – that’s why I’m so committed to reversing this.”

NASA still hopes for some type of scaled back Mars missions in the 2016 to 2020 timeframe which will be outlined in an upcoming article.

In the meantime, the entire future of America’s Search for Life on the Red Planet now hinges on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover speeding thru interplanetary space and a pinpoint touchdown inside the layered terrain of Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.

Curiosity will be NASA’s third and last generation of US Mars rovers – 4th Generation Axed !

NASA’s Opportunity Rover is now Earth’s only surviving robot on Mars