ESA Science News

04 Feb 2000

International Mars group looks for future options

Over the next five years, four space agencies will be sending spacecraft to Mars, with many others hitching rides. Their representatives converged on the British National Space Centre in London last week for the first meeting of the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) since the loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander last year.

From 2003 to 2007, ESA, its Member States and Hungary will play a bigger part in the international Mars exploration programme than the United States. Nonetheless, NASA's review of its own programme in the wake of its recent losses could have far-reaching consequences for the international partners. The outcome of that review will be known by mid-March, Roger Bourke from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory told the meeting.

The international programme In the current plan at least two spacecraft, including at least one orbiter and one lander, would be sent to Mars in each of 2001, 2003 and 2005. The 2001 spacecraft would both be NASA's. In 2003, ESA will send the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander and NASA would send a lander with rover. Mars Express will conduct simultaneous observations with Nozomi, Japan's orbiter, which is due to arrive at Mars at the same time.

In 2005, the French space agency, CNES, will send an orbiter and four small landers (Netlanders), built by a European consortium, for geophysics experiments on Mars from distributed locations. NASA would also send a lander and rover, which will collect samples from the Martian surface and insert them into a canister for launch into orbit around Mars. Mars Express would help CNES's orbiter to locate the canister for pick up and return to Earth. This sample return mission is intended as the basis for future, similar more ambitious missions. The four agencies involved have also agreed to adhere to a common communications standard, which will allow all landers to communicate with all orbiters and ground stations on Earth. NASA is considering sending a series of microsatellites to Mars, starting in 2003, to provide communications links.

Future possibilities

The meeting heard that NASA is unlikely to cancel or postpone its future orbiters, as the reason for the MCO failure is known and can be avoided. But the reason for the MPL loss is proving difficult to identify. "There is no dearth of speculation, but very few facts. To the best of my knowledge [the review teams] have found no suspicious items, so there are many possibilities," said Bourke. If a solvable problem is not identified, NASA may cancel the 2001 lander and shift the emphasis of the 2003 lander towards proving the technology. The 2005 mission could still be sample return, but perhaps less ambitious than originally envisaged.

ESA and CNES are proceeding undeterred with their parts in the programme. CNES's 2005 orbiter can deliver the Netlanders and remain in orbit for at least two years should there be a delay to NASA's 2005 sample return mission, according to Richard Bonneville from CNES. Mars Express can also extend its mission to 2007 should it be needed for communications duties on behalf of other missions, or to help retrieve the sample return canister later than expected.

Resolving a communications problem

Adhering to a common communications standard is proving fraught, however, but the meeting threw up a possible resolution. NASA's 2001 missions do not comply with the standard, as their design was fixed before it was agreed. Beagle 2, the Mars Express lander, however, wants two channels of communication in case one fails. One will be Mars Express and the other could be NASA's 2001 orbiter or the communications microsatellites launched in 2003. Which standard should Mars Express adopt, given that it needs to finalise its communications design by mid-February?

Discussions at the meeting, backed up by some trans-Atlantic telephone calls, secured an assurance from NASA that its 2003 and subsequent missions would adopt the common standard. NASA was also willing to investigate the feasibility of writing new communications software for the 2001 orbiter that could be up-loaded in time for Beagle, but after the orbiter had completed its nominal mission.

A forum for forging partnerships The meeting was also an opportunity for some of the smaller players in Mars exploration to present their hopes and plans. Canada and Hungary, for example, two countries that have so far had little involvement, said they wanted to bid for future opportunities on the spacecraft of others. Heinrich Waenke, of the Max Planck Institut fuer Chemie and a founding IMEWG member, illustrated how the group could help forge international partnerships when he told of his own experience in building Apex, a small rover, for Mars '96, the Russian spacecraft that failed. "Through IMEWG, APEX became known across the Atlantic," he said and eventually ended up on Mars Pathfinder.

The Russians were notable for their absence and the meeting resolved to find the means to invite at least one delegate to future meetings. Carl Pilcher, the current chairman, stepped down and the meeting elected Risto Pellinen from the Finnish Meteorological Institute to replace him.

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