NASA studies ways to save on Mars trips

NASA is considering a plan to get around limited budgets set in Washington by stretching out missions to bring back samples from Mars, a researcher said Wednesday.

It may be possible to break down the complicated and expensive mission into three parts, said Steve Squyres, a Cornell University astronomer who leads the Mars Exploration Rover Mission.

“It makes the program more affordable because it strings out the cost over time,” Squyres told reporters in a telephone briefing. “It brings down the cost per year of doing such a thing.”

The space agency got an extra $6 billion in the latest federal budget, but President Obama has said it is time to abandon the pricey Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon and focus instead on Mars and nearby asteroids, and to use private contracts to support missions.

Squyres, speaking from a conference in Texas on the search for extraterrestrial life, said the new approach does not affect his team’s work studying Mars using robots.

“All of us want to see humans on Mars collecting samples,” he said. But the details of which rockets are used to launch such missions do not matter, he said.

He described a “hellish” mission in which a robot, similar to the successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers, scoops up a sample from the Martian surface. The next mission would be a lander that would plop down beside it, Squyres said.

This vehicle could sling the sample into orbit around Mars, waiting for a third mission to retrieve it and bring it to Earth for study.

Some other scientists at the meeting in Texas say they have better evidence that such a mission might find evidence of life, if there ever was any, on Mars.

For instance, the vast fields of gypsum that cover much of the planet’s surface may carry evidence, said UCLA paleobiology professor J. William Schopf.

Schopf and colleagues said they found the remnants of plankton, diatoms and cyanobacteria in gypsum deposits made when the Mediterranean dried up 6 million years ago.

No one ever thought fossils could survive in gypsum, Schopf told the briefing. But if they lasted on Earth for millions of years, they could have lasted in the big fields of gypsum strewn on what looks like a dried-up ocean on Mars.

“We now know that this is a good place to look for evidence of fossil life on Mars,” Schopf said. “If we can find the organic matter, then we have real reason to believe that there once was life there.”