Researchers Call for Continued Exploration of Mars

Press Release From: Planetary Science Institute
Posted: Friday, March 16, 2012

image A new position paper by researchers at the Planetary Science Institute calls for sustaining NASA funding for the exploration of Mars. Concerned by the administration's budget proposal to scale back and effectively bring to an end what has been a spectacularly successful program, the paper's authors have outlined a path to continue and benefit from a robust American effort to explore Mars.

The position paper follows and is available online:


The President's budget proposal for FY13 effectively ends the U.S. exploration of Mars by 2018, except for a directed mission supporting human exploration. Congress must not allow the collapse of such a successful and valuable program, and the irreversible loss of national capability, expertise and preeminence that would follow. We recommend that Congress maintain the NASA Planetary Division budget at a minimum of its FY12 level and direct NASA to restore the Mars program according to the following priorities, consistent with the recent NRC Planetary Decadal survey:

* Funding for the Mars Fundamental Research and Mars Data Analysis Programs will be increased by 20% in FY13 with the goal of doubling the aggregate funding level of these programs over the next 5 years.

* Current operating missions at Mars will be fully funded for as long as they continue to produce high value science.

* The Mars Scout program will be reconstituted within the Discovery Program Office, with selections every 24 months, thereby maintaining American access to the Martian surface and orbital environment. Technology investments can improve the cost-effectiveness of Mars Sample Return, which would be of great value, but no Mars Sample Return mission should be undertaken at the expense of the robust Mars exploration program outlined above.

The NASA Mars Program Has Been a Spectacular Success

Since 1992, the United States embarked on a bold enterprise of Mars exploration, taking advantage of almost every biannual launch window to send orbiters and landers to Mars, each informed by and building upon the discoveries of the earlier missions. This endeavor has revolutionized our view of this world from cold and dead to a dynamic planet with a dramatic, water-rich past in which the conditions for life may have existed. The recent discoveries of seasonally flowing water just beneath the surface and methane in the atmosphere raise the question of whether life exists today.

The Planetary Decadal Survey

The 2011 Planetary Decadal Survey recommended restructuring the Mars program, putting focus on a multi-decadal series of three flagship missions to accomplish the return of Mars surface samples to Earth. The first flagship, Max-C, would cache samples on the Martian surface. To accommodate this, regular missions to Mars under the Scout program would be ended. Assets currently in Mars orbit and on the surface would ultimately fail, greatly reducing the U.S. presence at Mars. In the event of cost overruns or limited budgets, Max-C would be the first mission to be descoped or delayed, potentially putting off the Mars Sample Return sequence indefinitely.

The President's FY13 Budget Proposal

The Administration rejected the decadal recommendation of committing to a multi-decadal sequence of flagship missions to return Mars samples to Earth. This is reflected in the FY13 budget proposal to Congress. Unfortunately, the Administration accepts the recommendation to merge future Mars missions with the broader Discovery program without giving that program the resources to improve its cadence of missions to the recommended 24 months, much less select more than one mission per opportunity. In addition, U.S. participation in the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter and the ExoMars lander with the European Space Agency is cancelled. Continued exploration of Mars is severely restricted, if not brought to an end, with the exception of a possible orbiter in support of human exploration in 2018. The President's proposal also reduces future funding of Mars research programs.

Mars Exploration Should Not Be Limited by Human Exploration

The Mars exploration program within NASA's Planetary Science Division should be motivated by science. Human exploration goals at this time are unconstrained and may range from surface telepresence from orbit to, ultimately, settlement. A robust science program at Mars is essential to the definition and support of any human exploration activities. Human exploration (HEOMD) augmentation of a competed Mars science mission, or science cooperation on a HEOMD-funded precursor mission (analogous to Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) offers reasonable models.

The Need for Mars Research and Data Analysis

American taxpayers have made a substantial investment in Mars missions for more than twenty years, and the true return on that investment is not limited to a successful launch, or amazing pictures, or press conferences, but is measured by the advancement of scientific knowledge. The Mars Data Analysis program is the principal means by which the torrent of data coming back from Mars is studied and new insights attained about its complex geological and climate history. Yet, funding for this program has been insufficient for the task, and recent and projected funding declines threaten the permanent loss of American researchers and the training of new students. The Mars Fundamental Research program, the funding for which has also been in decline, provides critical experimental, theoretical and field work for understanding processes we observe on Mars by relating them to those processes on Earth. American taxpayers will get the return they expect only through better support for these programs.

The Need for Continued Access to Mars

We look across great new vistas of an alien world and we learn about ourselves, our own world and the larger environment of the solar system in which we live. We are laying the groundwork for the future of humans on Mars. No one mission, human or robotic, can answer all of our questions. To continue to build on our accomplishments, make new discoveries, and search for life beyond Earth, we need to continue sending diverse missions to Mars to study it from orbit and bring new tools to different locations on its surface.

Opening up new frontiers is part of America's identity. Pushing back the frontier of Mars has marked the cutting edge of American science, technology and innovation. We need to stay the course.

Media Contact:
Alan Fischer
Public Information Officer
+1 520-382-0411, +1 520-622-6300

Science Contact:
Mark V. Sykes
PSI Director
+1 520-622-6300

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Planetary Science Institute is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to solar system exploration. It is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, where it was founded in 1972. PSI scientists are involved in numerous NASA and international missions, the study of Mars and other planets, the Moon, asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, impact physics, the origin of the solar system, extra-solar planet formation, dynamics, the rise of life, and other areas of research. They conduct fieldwork in North America, Australia and Africa. They also are actively involved in science education and public outreach through school programs, children's books, popular science books and art. PSI scientists are based in 17 states, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Russia, Australia and Canada.

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