Despite hurdles, human missions to Mars are in the works

May 10, 2005
Despite hurdles, human missions to Mars are in the works

Rovers setting the stage

While all the excitement on Mars focuses on the amazing durability and discoveries of two robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, two Mars Exploration Rover (MER) scientists remind Mars aficions that the rovers are part of a coordinated plan to put humans on the Red Planet some day.

Image: Mars Exploration Rover mission scientists remind us that the amazing success of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity is a harbinger for the day when humans inhabit the Red Planet.

The major drawback to a human mission to Mars is preparing for the one to two years of radiation and microgravity exposure that astronauts must endure. While that is a large hurdle, enabling technologies are emerging that should be able to make this goal a reality over the next couple of decades, and America should go for it.

That's the theme of a report from NASA's 2002 Astrobiology Academy appearing soon as a paper in Acta Astronautica. Bethany Ehlmann, MER scientist, 2004 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and current Rhodes scholar, is the lead author of the paper, which features ten other authors who were undergraduate and graduate students at universities nationwide.

Ehlmann, advised by Raymond E. Arvidson, Ph.D., James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of Washington University's earth and planetary sciences department in Arts & Sciences, worked with Arvidson on the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in the winter and spring of 2004 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"President Bush has announced a long-term vision for space exploration, one focused on exploring our solar system and universe and understanding if life started and evolved elsewhere," said Arvidson. "A central theme is whether or not Mars has or had life, using robotic exploration first, followed by detailed study using humans and robotic systems in coordinated ways. Bethany's NASA Astrobiology Academy study is very nicely aligned with the President's vision and forms a basis for thinking about how to implement an exciting exploration strategy over the next several decades."

Ehlmann and her co-authors state that a decision to explore Mars with humans will be a political one, driven by three factors: economics, education and exploration.

"A human mission to Mars would bring back immense amounts of scientific data, and serve as inspiration for the next generation of space scientists to enter critically needed science and engineering disciplines," the authors write. But, "Exploration alone cannot justify the increased risk."

The present human Moon-Mars initiative needs to be very careful about not draining funding from basic astronomical research and earth observation systems, Ehlmann said.

"We need to strike the right balance between human and robotic, and I'm worried that the right one is not being struck," Ehlmann said. "My co-authors and I weren't arguing for a zero sum game (sacrifice basic science for human spaceflight) but rather additional funding for human Mars mission planning. We were arguing this should be added to the list of society's priorities — behind AIDS research and poverty eradication, of course.

"Working on MER, I was continually blown away by what those little robots could do. They're amazing pieces of engineering, a testament to human ingenuity, and have a lot of discoveries left to go. But they have limitations. It took 56 days to explore a 20-meter crater (Opportunity), a year to travel 4 kilometers (Spirit) — something you can leisurely run in a half hour. It always left you itching to go a little further, wondering what's over the horizon, what the rovers might not reach."

Ehlmann said that the human touch to space exploration is a driving force of discovery.

"Would the underwater world have been so appealing without the visionary human touch of Jacques Cousteau?" she asks. "Exploration and curiosity are in our blood. In my lifetime, I hope we take the leap to Mars and really see what's out there."

Explore further: Chandra X-ray Observatory finds planet that makes star act deceptively old

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Robots do battle over Mars exploration

Sep 06, 2014

Robots built to traverse the rugged terrain of Mars battled it out in Poland on Friday in a competition to find the best way to explore the Red Planet.

Giant garbage patches help redefine ocean boundaries

Sep 02, 2014

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of environmental concern between Hawaii and California where the ocean surface is marred by scattered pieces of plastic, which outweigh plankton in that part of ...

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

Image: Rainbow aurora captured from space station

1 hour ago

Auroras occur when particle radiation from the Sun hits Earth's upper atmosphere, making it glow in a greenish blue light. ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst has one of our planet's best views of this phenomenon, ...

Experts: Mystery fireball was Russian satellite

5 hours ago

People from New Mexico to Montana saw the bright object break apart as it moved slowly northward across the night sky. Witnesses described it as three "rocks" with glowing red and orange streaks.

Violent origins of disc galaxies probed by ALMA

5 hours ago

For decades scientists have believed that galaxy mergers usually result in the formation of elliptical galaxies. Now, for the the first time, researchers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter ...

User comments : 0