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NASA unveils new Mars exploration plan

Illustration of the Mars 2007 "smart lander"  

October 26, 2000
Web posted at: 5:08 p.m. EDT (2108 GMT)

(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.

Manipulate the
Mars Global Surveyor

QTVR Panorama of the
Pathfinder landing site
In-Depth: Exploring Mars


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 missions.

NASA, European Mars missions to overlap
August 2, 2000
Liquid may have surfaced on Mars
June 23, 2000
Mars lander dodges Stanford dish; world joins search
February 1, 2000


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