Next Steps in Mars Exploration

May 28th, 2012

Mars explorer, Steve Squyres. Credit: IAF/AIAA/GLEX2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. — NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is drawing closer to a red planet touchdown at Gale Crater. That early August landing, if successful, will open a new chapter of investigating Mars in preparation for eventual human visits.

The keys to seeing human footprints on that distant world were outlined by Steven Squyres at the first Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX), held here May 22-24.

Squyres is a leading Mars investigator from Cornell University and is principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover program. He also chairs the NASA Advisory Council.

Besides the heads of the Canadian, European, and Russian space agencies, and high level participation of India, Japan, and NASA space officials, GLEX was attended by over 630 representatives from academia, government and industry.

Big picture

In his keynote address to GLEX he discussed where the international space community stands on Mars exploration, what he feels will come next in exploration, and what must be done to achieve those next steps.

In the big picture, Mars continues to surprise researchers. Robotic exploration has contributed greatly to revealing the red planet, including finding ice on that world, evidence of past abundant water, and evidence of an ancient magnetic field.

As far as next steps, Squyres outlined upcoming missions that will study trace-gas elements in Mars’ upper atmosphere, as well as robotic craft that can investigate the interior of the planet – with a particular emphasis on the geologic history of Mars. He spotlighted the importance of returning samples of Martian soil to Earth for more intensive study and research.

In this arena, Squyres emphasized the international cooperation necessary to carry out future Mars studies.

Given the cost, complexity, and challenges involved, Squyres contends that only international cooperation will make current and future Mars exploration efforts successful.

What is needed

“I don’t know the how of how we do this, that’s up to you,” Squyres said. “But I know what we need. We need big rockets. We need orbiters – most have been American or European, but other nations like China or India are getting involved with their lunar missions. We need to land – even if we do it differently every time. And we need rovers, be they U.S., Russian, European, or those of another country.”

Squyres concluded his talk by underscoring the necessity of continued international partnerships in exploration.

“In a book shelf on my office at home, I have a vial with stuff from Mars. But I would like more, especially in my laboratory. There is no way to get what we want without going there and getting it…and it’s too big a job for one agency to do alone.”

By Leonard David