Mars on the Cheap: Scientists Are Working to Revolutionize Access to the Red Planet

NASA and the European Space Agency have plans for complex missions to return samples to Mars. However, many researchers are developing low-cost, innovative ways to continue exploring the Red Planet.
They say it's time to create new ways to collect more data from remote locations, whether via souped up helicopters or cheap orbiters and landers.

Bethany Ehlmann is a planetary scientist at Pasadena's California Institute of Technology. She explains how to use low-priced craft in order to conduct the next round of investigations.

Like Earth, Mars is diverse. Different locales capture different environmental snapshots, Ehlmann told Ehlmann said that there is plenty to explore, noting the possibility of visiting exotic and amazing sites that spacecraft have viewed from orbit such as the Valles Marineris canyon and the Martian Polar caps.

Ehlmann stated that a system as complex as Mars requires breadth and depth. This means finding new ways of exploring at multiple locations using technology, new programmatic paradigms, and collaborations to lower the cost per mission. Imagine half a dozen mobile Mars exploration vehicles, operated by universities across the country. This would inspire students to pursue engineering and science careers.

Ehlmann stated that after decades of Mars exploration, most of the crucial questions can only be answered with boots on Mars, whether robotic or human.

NewSpace offers

NASA has been very cautious about taking risks. This is understandable since taxpayer money is being spent, stated Robert Lillis (Associate Director for Planetary Science and Astrobiology at the University of California, Berkeley).

Lillis refers to NASA's Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration program (SIMPLEx), which is a bold effort by NASA to enable first-rate planetary science for a fraction the cost of a Discovery mission. The Discovery program of NASA supports ambitious, but relatively low-cost exploration efforts. A Discovery mission costs approximately $500 million.

Lillis stated that SIMPLEx is also a tool to help determine the cost-benefit tradeoff between risk and cost.

Lillis, EscaPADEs principal investigator, stated that the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers mission (EscaPADEs) is a SIMPLEx endeavor, which promises a lot of science for a small amount of money. This Mars mission is expected to cost less than $80 million and will arrive in orbit around Mars in 2026.

Lillis stated that the twin EscaPADE probes provide a unique stereo view of Mars' complex upper atmosphere system. He said that the two spacecraft Blue and Gold will provide us with two eyes to help us understand, for the first-time, the Mars atmospheric loss patterns to the solar wind and electromagnetic gales.

Lillis stated that NewSpace will enable small satellite constellations to monitor and explore the Martian atmosphere with unparalleled fidelity and coverage by using NewSpace's spacecraft development methods. You will be able see every part of the planet, from the surface up to the upper atmosphere, at any time of day.

Lillis stated that future human explorers will benefit from this level of situational awareness in two ways. A better understanding of the near-surface pressure and wind will allow for safer entry, landing, and descent. Weather monitoring through data assimilation will allow for accurate forecasting of weather conditions.

Lillis stated that dust storms are important for safety and weather forecasting on Mars. Visibility and solar power generation are affected by dust storms.

Dot the distant planet

The Small High Impact Energy Landing Device, (SHIELD), is a new technology that can land safely and cheaply on Mars. It's currently being studied at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Louis Giersch, primary investigator of SHIELD, stated that SHIELD is basically both an lander and a shock-absorbing device in one.

Giersch said that although it won't be able put a spacecraft such as the Perseverance Rover on the surface, it could allow scientists to study the Martian surface more closely while traveling with larger NASA missions. While we are still trying to determine what kind of science instruments would make sense, weather sensors, cameras, and mass spectrometers all remain on the drawing boards.

The goal of SHIELD is to lower Mars lander costs by at least one order of magnitude, making it possible to carry out a wide range of missions. NASA could use the technology to potentially deploy dozens of robots in a short time span, thereby dotted the distant planet with landing pads.

Giersch stated that SHIELD will put more restrictions on science payloads than other Mars landers. He said that science payloads would need to be more compact and rugged but will have the benefit of being able to access the Martian surface more often due to reduced mission costs.

Paradigm shift

JPLs Nathan Barba is a systems engineer at SHIELD. This means that there are many opportunities for low-cost, frequent access to Mars. This door was opened in November 2018 when the Mars Cube One A and B cubesats (nicknamed EVE or WALL-E) completed a successful flyby on Mars. JPL spent $18.5 million to construct and operate the pair. They were joined by NASA's InSight Mars Lander.

SHIELD could either be delivered in one lander or multiple landers with one launch. Barba stated that a low-cost lander such as SHIELD could allow first-time measurements and pathfinder exploration, which is crucial for larger, more expensive missions.

Barba said that increased access to space is exciting because it opens up more possibilities for science on Mars. A new class of interplanetary missions at a lower cost would allow for more investigations and give rise to many early-career engineers and scientists.

Barba stated that smaller, more cost-effective spacecraft missions could offer decadal-class science parallel to the Mars sample return mission. He said that the paradigm shift in cost and capability can be attributed in part to a number of factors. These include a reduction of launch costs by rideshare and emerging small rockets, and the creation of science instruments capable to take high-precision or fundamentally new measurements.

Teachable moments

Another future Mars exploration idea has been supported by multiple flights of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter. Ingenuity has demonstrated its technology demonstrations, but what's next?

The Flights of Ingenuity are beyond our imagination, according to Shannah WithrowMaser (Mars Science Helicopter Vehicle Systems Lead at NASA's Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley). spoke with her about how each flight is opening up new possibilities and teaching us more, and she said that each flight is a learning experience.

An advanced Mars helicopter is one idea that's in the making, which could be a hexacopter that can carry larger payloads and travel longer distances than Ingenuity. Withrow-Maser stated that this Mars Science Helicopter approach is being developed courtesy of Ingenuity data. This data is downloaded after each flight and is evaluated.

Withrow-Maser stated that there is a bit of holding your breath when Ingenuity takes off. We were only taking one flight at a given time. It is far beyond what was intended and tested here on Earth.

Exploration by air

Withrow-Maser stated that defining a future Mars rotorcraft is not an easy task. She said that rotorcraft allowed her to fly from any place and hover over objects of interest.

A future mid-air deployment by a hexacopter is being evaluated. It would be released halfway through the entry, descent, and landing processes. A variety of Mars features that are difficult or impossible to reach by rovers could be explored, such as polar caps, vertical Cliffs, and mud volcanoes.

It could also fly over mysterious martian dark streaks called recurring slope linesae. These might indicate liquid water activity. The hexacopter can also be used to map vertical profiles in the atmosphere and dive into lava tube openings.

Withrow-Maser stated that the community is only beginning to see the potential of aero-exploration. Rotorcraft allow us to travel further and faster. All types of science can be stimulated by new vehicle platforms. I believe we are in a position to seize any opportunity that may come our way.

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