The New York Times (USA): too much Mars? Let’s discuss other worlds

Three government agencies in the world are preparing to return to Mars this summer. In addition to China and the United Arab Emirates, the United States also plan to land on the red planet NASA’s Mars Rover Perseverance along with a small experimental helicopter Ingenuity. However, the main task of this Rover will be to discover and capture some of the samples that in the future humans or robots will be able to deliver on the Ground.

The planetary science community will welcome these missions. However, many researchers began louder to ask the following question: why do we come back to Mars? So we invited Rebecca Boyle and David brown, two journalists (they dedicated a significant portion of his career conducting interviews with researchers of the cosmos as NASA, and universities) to discuss the question of why Mars, the planet, has long lost its atmosphere, absorbs seem so much oxygen — and budgetary resources — in areas and rooms where issues about the study of our Solar system.

Rebecca Boyle: so we go back to Mars. And again sent to another Rover. Probably even two if the mission of NASA and China will be successful.


Not to say that this is disappointing. But, if you take the mission for NASA Perseverance, there is a feeling of deja vu, of something already seen and very similar to the successful mission of the Mars Curiosity Rover in 2011. I wrote a lot about the importance of the study of Mars, especially processes, similar to our earthquakes, and it is for us of great importance. But even I have questions: what’s next in the process of studying the Solar system? Do not block if the expedition to Mars other important areas in the study of outer space.

David brown: Our researchers expect the entire Solar system. Since 2001, NASA has sent eight successive expeditions to Mars, including five with landing on the Red planet. Humanity now has on its servers the whole library of data about Mars, but while anybody has not had time to study all this accumulated data. On the other hand, the data obtained by spacecrafts as a result of short meetings with the Moons of Jupiter or ice giants Uranus and Neptune, “squeezed dry”.

Rebecca Boyle: And that made the story of the Mars self-fulfilling project. Those robots we sent to Mars, was, on the whole, extremely successful, and we received the data about existed before on this planet and plenty of water, there was no floodplain in which some life forms could appear on the surface. We also received information about the ice caps on Mars, the snow of carbon dioxide, about the internal Geology of the rarefied atmosphere and on the surface, vulnerable to the ravages of the winds.

Each new discovery in relation to Mars raises new questions, and the result is a healthier ecosystem in the exploration of Mars.

Some professionals find employment in research centers, where they receive the funding for graduate students and for continuing studies after the thesis defense, and as a result, there are more questions about Mars. And thus the study of the red planet continues.

However, in the last few years, the louder voices of those people who is urging NASA to look the other way. It could be Venus, or Titan, a moon of Saturn, or distant, faceless cyan disk of Uranus — not Mars, whatever, not Mars, where we sent a self-propelled robots for nearly two decades.

David brown: for many years, NASA has considered Mars as their own space program with their own directions and priorities. Every two years, some vehicles heading towards the red planet. But then, starting in 2010, the program on the Mars exploration due to funding cuts was included in the total portfolio of planetary science, NASA. Unexpected ways other worlds were destroyed crimson “death Star” (Death Star).

The Rover Curiosity was the cause of exceeding the budget by almost a billion dollars, and as a result, other projects have lost part of their funding. Project mission Perseverance also exceeded its budget, and if this continues, the other mission, sent to collect samples using the Rovers will do the same.

Although there are many unclear plans for the return of samples — the next mission will be a joint one with the Europeans, or only NASA astronauts will fly to the red planet, or we will pay company SpaceX, and it will send your ship, planetary scientific community has come to the conclusion that this kind of multi-billion dollar “flagship” mission will have the biggest priority.

This decision has already led to the abandonment of the construction of the spacecraft, which was supposed to send into orbit Europe, a satellite of Jupiter with possible seas (cheaper machine Europa Clipper will be launched in this decade). Although the shock hasn’t worn off, NASA made a choice in favor of the descent module InSight, while rejecting the well-proven and less expensive apparatus of the class Discovery, which was supposed to put a boat on Titan, the biggest moon of Saturn that he was able there to swim in its seas composed of liquid methane.

Rebecca Boyle: Rest in peace, apparatus for study of the Titan (Titan Mare Explorer). Meanwhile, amid controversy planetary researchers on how to Finance their mission, some geologists began to lust after glancing at Venus, the second planet farthest from the Sun.
Venus is roughly the same size as Earth, it has a mountainous surface, and it has atmosphere. In addition, its orbit around the Sun is the zone where the temperature is quite conducive to the formation of liquid water and perhaps even life.

“My doctoral thesis was dedicated to volcanoes on Mars. I have been involved in the development of three projects regarding Mars. This does not mean that I underestimate the Mars is an amazing world — said Paul Byrne (Paul Byrne), a planetary researcher at the University of North Carolina (North Carolina State University). — however, this is not the only wonderful world”.

According to him, he has the opportunity to study the clouds of Venus and its atmosphere, as his teaching position at the University covers the whole of his wages and all his obligations. But this cannot be said about other scientists who are forced to rely on grants and federally funded programs to collect data.

Even in other countries, Venus does not receive the attention which is Merited other worlds. Dr. Byrne informed me that the meeting in October last year in Moscow was focused on future missions to Venus, including discussed the project of creation of an enlarged and modernized the Soviet lander — yet it is only the spacecraft, working on the surface of Venus (the last of them, “Venera 12” worked 110 minutes). Only two Russian geologist was present at this meeting.

“Among young Russian scientists as well as we do, no traditions to study Venus — he said. Projects for the study of this planet has not received the necessary support. Mars pulled the spotlight on himself. According to him, those people who received funding to study Venus, with rare exceptions,” retired Lee now engaged in other projects.

We know that Mars at some period of its history was water, but she was already long gone. In contrast, on Venus, perhaps recently, there was an oceans existed much longer, and there may be, there was life for billions of years.

“Why don’t we send in the spacecraft?” — asks Byrne.

Really, why?

David brown: for a Long time already it was necessary to send probes to study the upper atmosphere of Venus. Of course, after the completion of the space Shuttle program in NASA’s portfolio, there is nothing (except the recent launch company SpaceX spacecraft to the International space station) that could be compared with the enthusiasm for the planetary science program.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which flew close to Pluto, Cassini mission to Saturn, stunning pictures of Jupiter on a blue background, made with a camera Juno on these projects, NASA people say, and they talk about planetary science.

The only exception is a space telescope Hubble, which transmits such a large number of stunning images that they have already become permanent bright color cultural elements of statics. We no longer even notice it, which is a Testament to the success of this program.

Rebecca Boyle: In my opinion, the same can be said about the images of Mars, in a sense. We get them in living color in the late 1990-ies, and they also became static in a sense. The probe Curiosity has a camera of high resolution, and people have captured those incredible images that were obtained after his landing in 2012, but today they are almost no one pays attention.
I used to check for new images, using a program called “Midnight of the world” (Midnight, Planet), which was developed by programmer Michael Howard (Michael Howard). He uploaded these images in raw form as they were transmitted through the antenna the Deep Space Network. It was very interesting to watch, saw the Rovers, and it all happened almost in real time. However, Mr. Howard has stopped updating his website almost a year ago and left this message: “I am now engaged in other projects in my life.”

I found this only because I first decided to check for updates after a break that lasted more than a year. That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? We do not delight the get night image from Mars. With Mars!

Curiosity Rover landing on Mars was the first mission of its kind in the age of social media, and people around the world watched him on Twitter, on television and on the square times square. It was amazing. But today so much attention anymore.
This is because Mars is already sufficiently explored? While we are forced to settle for waiting to see how the audience will react to a boat on Titan or something like that.

David brown: At least currently, work is underway on creating a quadcopter for Titanium. The problem for the rest of the Solar system lies in the fact that the letter “N” in NASA does not mean “scientific.” This National Aeronautics and space administration focuses on preparation of human flight in space. There are directed the main flows of money, and robot missions to Mars are the natural beneficiaries of this process. The astronauts can’t get to Europe, a moon of Jupiter with the use of modern technology, and they can’t land on Venus. However, the man in the suit can survive on Mars, and this means that each direction of robots on Mars is unconvincing not only in matters of Geology or the study of Aeolian deposits. In fact, each sent to Mars mission is preparation for manned flight. Every dollar spent on the Mars Rovers, reduces the risks inevitably faced by astronauts in the future.

Culturally Mars is very important for NASA, and have been since the inception of this administration. The program of the delivery man to Mars, which was developed before the Apollo (Appollo), was a natural consequence of the implementation of the lunar program. To become multiplanetary Agency, NASA had to have a reusable space shuttles, space station, rockets, at least, the same powerful as “Saturn 5”, and the other located in space infrastructure. Although the glorious days of the funding of the program “Apollo” is no more, fundamental elements for the study of Mars, still — all these elements were created, although it spent much more time.

Rebecca Boyle: Another reason these are private companies. Simply send something to Mars every 26 months, this planet is on the same side towards the Sun as the Earth. And so the flight is only six months.

Around the same schedule Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, makes a bold and vague statement about its plans for the launch of cruise ships to Mars, which is people who, apparently, will remain on this planet forever. Some years ago a Dutch startup called Mars One tried to start a reality show about the life of settlers on the red planet, but went bankrupt.
Although the conditions on Mars is terrible this is the worst place, with the possible exception of the moon. The impression that going to Mars can be reached. And real seem to be human footprints left on the red regolith. That is why we have for several generations after the program “Apollo” again and again we see traces of a tracked robot in the red regolith.

David brown: In a sense, the Rover Perseverance confirms the harshest criticism of the program for the study of Mars. It was relatively inexpensive and is based on re-using materials developed for the Curiosity Rover and also lander, including using available spare parts, but with a different set of scientific tools.
In the end, the Perseverance project budget was exceeded by more than 500 million dollars and this project was added helicopter!
Almost all nodes have been upgraded. The Rover now has other dimensions, and also received new wheels, chassis and camera. Was not even used a spare heat shield. As for the cost of the work performed, this ambitious modernization comparable to the funding of a mission class Discovery, and this caused problems in the implementation of other major programs in the portfolio of NASA.

However, the Russian experience with Venus explains the need for NASA in the expansion of the engineering works associated with the Mars program. To stop the production embarks on Mars modules, to discontinue the implementation of such ambitious projects as the helicopters — all this means a loss of institutional knowledge needed to successfully explore the red planet. United States to launch astronauts into space since 1961, but after we stopped flying, it took almost ten years to figure out how to start again to do it.
Rebecca Boyle: the Confusion and frustration associated with the program of flights to Mars, is evidence of the main existential struggle within NASA. As you said, NASA has always been the Agency’s astronauts and the training of manned space flight — it is his DNA. But when presidential administrations change research program every four or eight years, it becomes more difficult to develop plans for the long term. NASA needs some place to send space ships, and Mars is the natural next step after the moon.

However, this Administration and the country as a whole should probably ask this question: what, in fact, we want to in the future? We want to deliver on the Ground a piece of rock, which will allow us to expand our knowledge of the early history of Mars? Or, maybe we’ll be lucky and we will be able to deliver the piece of rock with fossil evidence of bacteria? Or it is just additional evidence, including sedimentary layered rocks on Mars, that Mars is of sufficient interest, and people makes sense to take a risk in order to one day join him on the surface?

David brown: “Long-term” program in Mars exploration in General, and the great mystery of these missions. No one knows exactly when assembled apparatus Perseverance samples will be brought back to Earth. Perhaps these containers will absorb red dust for 15 years, and only after that, the robots will capture them and send them to the Ground. The question of the existence of life on Mars, currently or in the past — was rejected and once again began to be discussed since the Viking lander in 1976 and prior to the discovery by the Curiosity Rover of methane in 2019.

Perhaps the collected samples will allow to answer to this question, said in an interview with me, Dr. Tim McCoy (Tim McCoy), curator of the collection of meteorites of the Smithsonian institution (Smithsonian Institution), and those samples, which NASA intends to, and can, ultimately, prove to be not very useful for science.

“How do we know that they will be able to tell us about the issues that will exist in 15 or 20 years from now?” he asked. In his view, the planetary scientific community can move to a completely different set of questions by the time when the Martian dirt will be delivered in a terrestrial laboratory.

Rebecca Boyle: I hope that the apparatus Perseverance, starting to explore Mars, discover the most interesting rocks in the Solar system. But we just have to wait, when there are so many other places we have not been.

I’m a big supporter of studying the moon, and I wish we went back there and got rock samples from the largest crater in the Solar system, from pool South pole — Aitken. I would like to see the creation of cloud city from spacecraft orbiting Venus. And I really, really want a project with this boat on Titan.

David brown: it’s time to send a flagship mission to Venus. Conditions over the clouds, similar to earth, make the detection of life there is only a matter of time.

The frost giants also deserve research, and creative missions such as spacecraft Trident of a Triton, satellite of Neptune, proves that it can be done with relatively small budgets.

Today I like that question about the landing of the Mars spacecraft with a nuclear facility does not cause much enthusiasm. In the 1980s, when funding problems forced the planetary science community to fight for survival. And today we are living in a Golden age of space research.