JPL pitches for Mars project

A scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is lobbying for a new Mars lander that would perform an unprecedented study of the Red Planet's interior. It is one of three concepts in the running for future NASA funding through the competitive Discovery Program.

The proposed Geophysical Monitoring Station (GEMS) would pack a scientific payload that includes a thermal probe, seismometer and orbital tracking system. All are tools for discovering the inner composition of Mars to help explain the largely unknown story of that planet's beginnings — and to some degree, Earth's — said JPL's Bruce Banerdt, who would lead the project.

“GEMS would provide unique and critical information about the same [types of] processes that likely operated during the first few hundred million years on the Earth …a period for which virtually all information has been lost due to subsequent vigorous activity,” Banerdt said in an email. “On Mars, this information appears to have been preserved due to its lower level of activity for the past few billion years, allowing us a virtual window into our own past.”

The payload for JPL in terms of funding could also be huge.

GEMS and two proposals from other NASA facilities were selected by space agency leaders last week from among 28 submissions for consideration of a 2016 launch date. Each team will receive $3 million for preliminary design studies, and whichever is selected would receive a budget of up to $425 million.

JPL has often scored big through this bottom-up mission-planning approach, making headlines with past Discovery missions that included the 2005 comet-colliding Deep Impact probe, the Keppler telescope launched in 2009, and the July 1997 Mars lander Pathfinder. In September, the JPL-managed twin GRAIL spacecrafts will launch to the moon to study its internal makeup.

NASA this year announced funding for NEOCam, a JPL telescope that will study near-Earth objects from space to help determine their origins and potential risk for collision.

“We want to learn about [near-Earth objects] because they give us clues to the solar system's formation, and because we want to better understand the impact hazard,” JPL astrophysicist Amy Mainzer, who is leading the telescope's design, said in an email.

If it reaches final approval, GEMS would be the fourth JPL-managed spacecraft to land on Mars, following the famous twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the new Curiosity rover, which is to be launched as early as November.


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