NASA unveils new Mars exploration plan
Illustration of the Mars 2007 "smart lander"
(CNN) -- After last year's loss of two red planet explorers, NASA on Thursday unveiled an ambitious plan to send eight or more probes to Mars over the next two decades to search for evidence of water or life.
The fleet of orbiters, landers and rovers would employ new
technologies that expand their scientific capabilities, save fuel
and improve their chances of surviving on the red planet, NASA's
chief Mars mission managers said Thursday.
In addition to a 2001 orbiter and twin 2003 rovers, all
previously announced, the agency plans to send a more powerful
orbiter in 2005, a long-range mobile laboratory in 2007 and a new
line of "scout" missions that could involve scientific balloons
or miniature landers. The first could arrive as early as 2007.
| MESSAGE BOARD|
The first mission that returns samples of martian soil or rock
could launch from Earth as soon as 2011, NASA said.
The new, open-ended approach stands in contrast to
the specific agenda outlined in the agency's previous Mars exploration plan. Agency officials said the new plan represents an adjustment -- but not an abandonment -- of the "better, faster, cheaper" approach of recent years.
In 1999, NASA lost a Mars orbiter and lander, each right before
it was to begin its mission. The first most likely burned in the
atmosphere because managers failed to convert metric and English
measurements. The second presumably crashed moments before
landing because of a software glitch.
The future orbiters would expand the search for liquid water on
Mars, a strong indicator of possible past or present life.
Scientists looking at high-resolution images taken by the Mars
Global Surveyor announced in June they had identified
visual evidence of water just underneath the surface.
Surveyor has orbited the red planet since 1997 and can spot
features as small as 3 meters (10 feet). The 2005 orbiter will be
able to discern objects smaller than one foot.
"It can see things the size of beach balls," Scott Hubbard, Mars
program director, told reporters.
Afterwards, using intelligence gathered by the satellites, the
new generation of rovers could traverse the surface of Mars for
years instead of months, seeking out possible oases that possess
water and possibly life, Hubbard and colleagues said.
NASA envisions bold new technologies to ensure the success of its
ambitious plans, expected to cost at least $450 million annually
for the next five years. The sample return mission could balloon to
as much as $2 billion.
The details on the probes are deliberately left open-ended, but officials said they could employ smart sensors to find safe landing sites,
airbrake through the atmosphere to save fuel, use radar to search
for underground water, and perhaps include heavy machinery to
bore deep below the surface.
The missions are part of a long-term Mars exploration program
developed over the past six months. NASA expects to refine the
engineering concepts and costs over the next 18 months.
The agency said international partners like the French and
Italian space agencies would play an integral role in the
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