NASA Embarks On 10 Years of Missions To Mars

NASA embarked on a decade-long program of Mars exploration in 1994, establishing at JPL a program office that will oversee all Mars missions planned for the next 10 years.

The JPL Mars Exploration Office, established in July 1994, was put in place in response to NASA's initiative to scale back the cost and development time of spaceflight missions and to begin a sustained program of Mars exploration. The first two missions of the Mars Exploration Program got under way last year and will continue to play prominent roles for about 350 project personnel until they are launched in November 1996. The missions are the Mars Global Surveyor, an orbiter that will arrive at Mars in September 1997, and the Mars Pathfinder lander and rover, which will land on the planet and place the first robotic rover on the surface in July of the same year.

The Surveyor will be a polar-orbiting spacecraft designed to provide global maps of surface topography, distribution of minerals and monitoring of global weather. The spacecraft, which will be launched from a Delta II launch vehicle, will carry six of the eight scientific instruments carried aboard the Mars Observer spacecraft.

The mission will rely on an aerobraking technique--developed during the final days of the Magellan mission--that will provide a means of minimizing the amount of fuel necessary to lower it into a low-altitude mapping orbit over Mars.

Mars Pathfinder received a fiscal year 1994 start by NASA's Office of Space Science, with a cost cap of $150 million in fiscal year 1992 dollars. The project reported excellent progress in all aspects of development during 1994. Integration of prototype models of the rover, imager, flight system and ground-data system was accomplished. Conceptual testing of components of the innovative entry, descent and landing subsystems was also finished, including testing of air bag inflation and retraction mechanisms, testing of the heat shield material and testing of the rocket-assisted deceleration mechanism. Flight hardware and software will be completed this year and delivered to start the assembly and testing of the flight system in June.

In the meantime, a request for proposals has been issued to industry for design of the 1998 mission to Mars. Industry responses were expected to be returned by April 1.

International participation, collaboration and coordination will be a cornerstone of all new missions to Mars, and each pair of spacecraft launched during the next decade will build on the experience of its predecessors. For instance, landers in future years--1998, 2001, 2003 and 2005--will capitalize on the experience of the Mars Pathfinder lander mission. By the same token, progressively smaller, streamlined orbiters will allow smaller and less expensive launch vehicles to be used as NASA's fleet of spacecraft is readied to explore and act as data relay stations for international missions of the future.