THOR Mars Mission To Seek Underground Water

Feb 01, 2006

A new, low-cost mission concept to Mars would slam a projectile into the planet's surface in an attempt to look for subsurface water ice.

"I'm interested in exploring mid-latitude areas of Mars that look like they're made of snow and ice," Phil Christensen, the project's principal investigator, told SpaceDaily.com.

Christensen, of Arizona State University, and colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are proposing a mission called THOR – for Tracing Habitability, Organics and Resources – as part of NASA's Mars Scout program.

Like last year's Deep Impact mission to comet Tempel 1, THOR aims to ram a projectile at high speed into the surface of Mars while a host spacecraft remains in orbit and observes the impact and its aftermath. If approved by NASA, the mission would launch in 2011.

Christensen said he originally had conceived of a mission to the Martian mid-latitudes, because "there are lots of gullies there that look like they are rice in ice, possibly even glaciers."

His idea was to attempt to land small probes in at least several locations to examine the surface, "but landing is difficult and expensive." After Deep Impact's success, however, "this light bulb went off. We could launch a projectile, dig a deep hole, and observe the ejected material."

Christensen estimates that a projectile of sufficient size could blow a crater at least 30 feet deep in the Martian subsurface. Along with ground water, the impact could excavate organic compounds. The mission will also look for methane in the atmosphere, which Earth-based telescopes and other Mars spacecraft already have detected.

THOR would comprise an impact projectile and an orbiting spacecraft. The projectile would aim for an impact site somewhere between 30° and 60° latitude, either north or south.

"In many areas of Mars' middle latitudes, we see tantalizing evidence of dust-covered layers of snow or ice," Christensen said. "THOR will aim for this material." The suspected ice-rich layers were deposited during the past 50,000 to 1 million years, as the Martian climate changed due to orbital variations.

Christensen said the mission should cost about $450 million, including the launch vehicle. He said NASA probably will receive about a dozen other Scout Mission proposals and should choose the winning designs sometime this summer.

"The THOR mission plans to use a straightforward, low-risk approach to reach the Martian subsurface," said JPL's David Spencer, study lead engineer for THOR. Spencer is the former mission manager for Deep Impact.

"With such a large target region on Mars, delivering THOR¹s impactor will be less challenging than the Deep Impact comet encounter," Spencer said.

Copyright 2006 by Space Daily, Distributed United Press International

Explore further: Lunar explorers will walk at higher speeds than thought

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A salty, martian meteorite offers clues to habitability

Aug 28, 2014

Life as we know it requires energy of some sort to survive and thrive. For plants, that source of energy is the Sun. But there are some microbes that can survive using energy from chemical reactions. Some ...

Recommended for you

Lunar explorers will walk at higher speeds than thought

5 hours ago

Anyone who has seen the movies of Neil Armstrong's first bounding steps on the moon couldn't fail to be intrigued by his unusual walking style. But, contrary to popular belief, the astronaut's peculiar walk ...

Space: The final frontier... open to the public

7 hours ago

Historically, spaceflight has been reserved for the very healthy. Astronauts are selected for their ability to meet the highest physical and psychological standards to prepare them for any unknown challenges. However, with ...

NASA releases IRIS footage of X-class flare (w/ Video)

7 hours ago

On Sept. 10, 2014, NASA's newest solar observatory, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, mission joined other telescopes to witness an X-class flare – an example of one of the strongest solar flares—on ...

NASA's Maven spacecraft reaches Mars this weekend

7 hours ago

Mars, get ready for another visitor or two. This weekend, NASA's Maven spacecraft will reach the red planet following a 10-month journey spanning 442 million miles (711 million kilometers).

User comments : 0