BEYOND 2009 | Back to Future Missions
NASA is developing a long-term Mars exploration program that charts a course for the next two decades. This visionary program will build on scientific discoveries from past missions and incorporate the lessons learned from previous mission successes and failures.
Image left: Artist's concept of futuristic balloon and plane. Image credit: NASA/JPL
+ Larger view
NASA remains committed to creating additional "Scout" missions, such as the Phoenix lander, which would be selected from proposals submitted by members of the science community. Such missions might involve airborne vehicles, such as airplanes or balloons, or small landers that serve as investigation platforms. This approach could open up exciting new vistas by increasing the number of martian sites visited. The next Mars Scout is planned for launch in 2011.
Mars Sample Return
In the second decade of the 21st century, NASA plans additional science orbiters, rovers, and landers. One proposal is for a Mars Sample Return mission that would use robotic systems and a Mars ascent rocket to collect and send samples of martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere to Earth for detailed chemical and physical analysis. Researchers on Earth could measure chemical and physical characteristics much more precisely than they could by remote control. On Earth, they would have the flexibility to make changes as needed for intricate sample preparation, instrumentation, and analysis if they encountered unexpected results. In addition, for decades to come, the collected Mars rocks could yield new discoveries as future generations of researchers apply new technologies in studying them.
Astrobiology Field Laboratory
Image right: Artist's concept of Astrobiology Field Laboratory. Image credit: NASA/JPL
+ Larger view
Another proposal is for an Astrobiology Field Lab that would conduct a robotic search for life. It would be the first mission since Viking in the 1970s to look specifically for evidence of past or present life. The robotic lab would carry instruments for identifying and measuring the chemical building blocks for life (as we know it), including thousands of carbon-carrying compounds, elements such as sulfur and nitrogen, and oxidation states of trace metals associated with life. It would conduct detailed analysis of geologic environments identified by the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory as being conducive to life. Such environments might include fine-grained sedimentary layers, hot spring mineral deposits, icy layers near the poles, or sites such as gullies where liquid water once flowed or may continue to seep into soils from melting ice packs.
Deep Drilling and Other Technologies
NASA is interested in technologies that would increase the rate of mission launch or accelerate the schedule of exploration. The agency plans to invest in advanced capabilities such as miniaturized surface science instruments and deep drilling systems that can extend hundreds of meters beneath the surface.