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Space Science and Human Space Flight Enterprises Agree to Joint Robotic Mars Lander Mission


Douglas Isbell
Headquarters, Washington, DC                    March 25, 1997
(Phone: 202/358-1753)

Michael Braukus
Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1979)

RELEASE: 97-51


In a cooperative activity intended to advance scientific knowledge and help lay the groundwork for a future decision on whether to send humans to Mars, NASA's Space Science and Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) enterprises have agreed to jointly fund and manage two robotic missions to Mars due for launch in 2001.

"For the first time since the 1960s, NASA's space science and human space flight programs are cooperating directly on the exploration of another planetary body," said Dr. Wesley T. Huntress Jr., NASA associate administrator for space science. "Mars is a challenging destination for any type of spacecraft to reach, and it makes a great deal of sense for us to pursue the maximum possible return of knowledge from any chance to go there."

"This joint effort is a sign that NASA is acquiring the information that will be needed for a national decision, perhaps in a decade or so, on whether or not to send humans to Mars," said Wilbur Trafton, associate administrator for space flight. "Early in the next century, once the International Space Station is deployed and operating, the question of our next major goal in human space flight will come up. This partnership is a major step toward ensuring that we have the information needed to answer that question."

NASA intends to launch two separate spacecraft to Mars, a small orbiter and a small lander, in March and April 2001, respectively.

The Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander will deliver a small, advanced technology rover capable of traveling several tens of miles across the Martian highlands. The rover will be able to collect rock and soil samples for later return to Earth by a future robotic mission.

Under the new internal NASA agreement, the 2001 Lander will now also be a platform for instruments and technology experiments designed to provide key insights to decisions regarding successful and cost-effective human missions to Mars. Hardware on the lander will be used for an in-situ demonstration test of rocket propellant production using gases in the Martian atmosphere. Other equipment will characterize the planet's soil properties and surface radiation environment.

"Before we can send humans into deep space, we need to understand the nature of the space environment and its effect on living systems," said Arnauld Nicogossian, M.D., acting associate administrator for life and microgravity sciences. "The Mars 2001 mission will give us invaluable information about the radiation environment of space and the surface on Mars."

Analyses of Martian dust and soil are necessary to understand any interactions with the systems currently planned that will supply the habitation and working environment for future human explorers.

A companion mission to the lander known as the Mars Surveyor 2001 Orbiter will be launched in March 2001. The 2001 Orbiter will be the first to use the atmosphere of Mars to slow down and directly capture the spacecraft into orbit, in a technique called aerocapture. The scientific objectives of the mission are to conduct mineralogical mapping of the entire planet and characterize its orbital radiation environment. The 2001 Orbiter also will carry a radio relay to support the lander and a possible Russian robotic rover mission.

The preliminary cost estimate for both integrated missions is approximately $311 million, not including launch costs. An integrated team of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA; the Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX; and Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, will develop the missions, led by JPL.

Both of the 2001 missions are part of an ongoing NASA series of robotic Mars exploration spacecraft that began with the launches of the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter and the Mars Pathfinder lander in November and December 1996, respectively. Mars Pathfinder and its 25-pound rover, named Sojourner, will land on Mars in a region called Ares Vallis on July 4, 1997.

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