JPL makes pitch for new Mars project

A JPL scientist’s pitch for a new Mars lander that would perform unprecedented study of the Red Planet’s interior is one of three ideas in the running for future NASA funding through the agency’s 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 — explained 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,” wrote Banerdt in an email interview last weekend. “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.”

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.

Somewhat entrepreneurial in nature, NASA’s Discovery Program compliments the agency’s primary space missions by allowing scientists to design and pitch smaller planetary science initiatives that use fewer resources than mainstream NASA projects.

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.

Because Discovery Program projects also involve collaborations with academic institutions and private firms, it remains unclear how much approval of the GEMS project could expand the JPL workforce, which shrank by some 250 jobs early this year due to budget-driven delays in other NASA-funded projects.

The Discovery Program also funds development of new technologies for possible use in future space missions.

NASA announced funding for three of those projects this year, including NEOCam, a JPL telescope that would study near-Earth objects from space to help determine their origins and potential risk for collision with Earth.

“We want to learn about NEOs because they give us clues to the solar system’s formation and because we want to better understand the impact hazard,” explained JPL astrophysicist Amy Mainzer, who is leading NEOCam’s design and was also reached by email.

NEOCam would operate from depths of space about four times the distance from Earth to the moon, far enough from the Earth-generated heat to obtain clear thermal infrared images, wrote Mainzer.

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.

GEMS team leader Banerdt also served as a lead project scientist for Spirit and Opportunity.

“My deep interest is in understanding as much as I can about the origin and evolution of Mars, and how the changing planet may have affected the environment at or near the surface where conditions for life may have occurred. Spirit and Opportunity use analyses of ancient surface rocks to get clues about the temperature, atmosphere, acidity, etc. at the time they were formed. The GEMS mission would look at this from the standpoint of the underlying processes that shaped the planet and atmosphere. It's like putting together different pieces of the puzzle,” wrote Banerdt.

GEMS thermal probe would bore up to 15 feet underneath the surface of Mars in order to measure how much heat is escaping from the interior of the planet, helping scientists determine what sorts of materials make up its mantle and core and map Mars’ geological history.

Previous Mars missions have uncovered thousands of quake faults on the Martian surface. By using a seismometer to measure “marsquakes,” wrote Banerdt, scientists may learn much about the planet’s history of cooling and contraction since its formation.

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