After tremendous budget cuts, NASA is starting from scratch on their Mars program. Shunning its traditional levels of bureaucracy, the US space agency is looking to the Twitter-verse for design inspiration. Last week, NASA’s John Grunsfeld tweeted:
“Have a good idea about Mars exploration? We’d like to hear about it.”
Mars exploration was hit particularly hard by the proposed 2013 federal budget — NASA lost 21% of its 2012 funding in that area. In fact, the agency broke commitments it had with recent European-driven programs to our red neighbor.
Although, NASA’s two missions in progress are relatively unaffected — the rover Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars this August; and an orbiter, MAVEN, will launch next year — a unique opportunity occurs in 2018. Every 15 years, the Earth and Mars come to their closest orbital approach. Thus, transit between the two worlds is fast and fuel-efficient.
These close encounters are rare, so NASA is engaging the public directly to help design a mission. In addition to tweeting, the newly-formed Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) requested proposals from the wider science community — be they academic researchers or from private industry. Submissions will presented at a workshop in June.
Above is a Discovery News report about two innovative concepts for Mars exploration unrelated to the current initiative. But it exemplifies how novel thinking can create inexpensive missions that are capable of excellent science.
What will these new missions (that NASA wants our help with) look like — an orbiter or lander? The MPPG doesn’t want to stifle creativity by imposing too many constraints. According to Grunsfeld:
“We’re not trying to write a roadmap for every mission we’ll fly through the next 20 years. We’d hate to prejudice the process at this point by trying to make those kinds of predictions.”
One prediction remains steadfast, though: the ultimate objective is to have humans walk on the Red Planet by the 2030s. Unfortunately, this is a mere 50 years behind the agency’s initial projections.
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