As engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) prepare the Curiosity Rover’s exploration programme over the surface of Mars, thoughts are moving towards a manned landing on the Red Planet.
Manned Mars Missions
Predictions of humans landing on Mars have been a regular feature of space enthusiasts’ dreams for over 50 years. Just another couple of decades before a manned spacecraft will go to Mars, has been the repeated mantra. Prior to joining NASA, the German rocket scientist Werner von Braun wrote in 1952 that humans could land on Mars by using a 4,000 ton spaceship carrying a 70-man crew. Some of the crew would descend on Mars’ polar ice cap using wings and skis.
The latest proposition has come from Californian entrepreneur Tony Stark, who believes that people will be able to complete a round trip to Mars and back to Earth within 12 to 15 years. And it would only cost about half a million dollars, the price of a suburban house in California, he contends.
NASA, nevertheless, is not contemplating any manned Mars mission. Instead, it intends to study the atmosphere or Mars just as Curiosity is collecting soil samples from the planet’s surface. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission is scheduled to be launched in late 2013. This is part of the Mars Scout programme to explore the planet’s ionosphere and upper atmosphere and their reactions with the Sun and the solar wind. The idea is to determine how volatile compounds such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and water have been lost from the Martian atmosphere over time and affected the planet’s climate.
NASA’s next big projects are under consideration by its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. The agency has awarded funding for 28 space-exploration ideas.
One idea is to design a submarine to explore beneath the surface ice of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. This could happen as an international project as the European Space Agency (ESA) also plans to launch a Jupiter probe in 2022 to explore Europa as well as Jupiter’s other icy moons, Ganymede and Callisto. ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft could reach Jupiter by 2030 and spend three years studying the planet’s atmosphere.
There are hopes of exploring Venus with a space probe. The Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts (ASC) programme at NASA’s Glenn Research Center hopes to develop a robotic mission to explore the surface and atmosphere of the planet. Missions to Venus could be launched between 2015 and 2030. The aim is to develop a spacecraft that can surf along the gravity and electromagnetic fields of the planet.