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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  
Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

JPL goes back to the drawing board for Mars missions

Two Landers
Illustrations of two spacecraft with similar designs: the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander (top) and the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander (with rover)  

In this story:

2001 orbiter will fly

Next lander may be cannibalized

Starting with 'a clean slate'


January 14, 2000
Web posted at: 4:13 p.m. EST (2113 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- The smart people who run NASA's Mars exploration program are still, well, smarting after they went 0 for the '98 season. But there isn't much time for self-pity in their business.

In little more than a year, the third and fourth rocks from the sun will once again be in the proper alignment for an Earth to Mars chip-shot. So, instead of hand wringing, the Jet Propulsion Lab brain-trust is busy coming up with a Plan B (as in Better). Forget about Cheaper and Faster for now.

Plan A (as in Ashcan), you may recall, called for NASA to launch the Mars Surveyor 2001 Orbiter on March 30, '01, and then, 11 days later, light a candle under its sister ship, the "Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander."

Take it from me (and this is not rocket science): The former will happen. The latter: well, if there's any question in your mind, may I interest you in the deed to some layered terrain in Mars-arctica?

Clickable Mars Polar Lander

The Mars Surveyor 2001 is the spitting image of its lost-and-gone-forever predecessor, the Climate Orbiter. It will tote three instruments.

One, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), will use an infra-red camera to see how the surface of Mars has evolved.

A second device, the Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS), will determine the elemental composition of the surface.

And a third, the Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE), will be testing the space neighborhood to see how hazardous it might be for humans.

2001 orbiter will fly

Yet the orbiter will fly in 14 months because the folks in Pasadena understand exactly what went wrong with the Climate Orbiter -- and it had nothing to do with the spacecraft design. In aviation parlance, it is euphemistically called "Controlled Flight into Terrain."

Lander Parachute
The 2001 Lander was to use the same aeroshell, cruise ring and descent ring as the Polar Lander, shown above  

But Mars Polar Lander is -- and will likely remain -- a mystery. In fact, the chances of figuring out what happened to it rank somewhere between slim and none. The Mars Global Surveyor (launched in '96 and not to be confused with the '01 version) continues to train its powerful camera on the projected landing zone, but this needle-in-the-haystack effort is tantamount to an engineering "Hail Mary" pass.

Amazing as it is, The Mars Orbiter Camera has a scale of about 5 feet per pixel. At that resolution, the Polar Lander would appear as little more than a slightly darkened square.

However, the sun is low on the horizon at the pole, so MPL will cast a long shadow -- if it is sitting upright. Perhaps the camera might get lucky and see the Lander's shadow (perhaps on Groundhog Day?). If it does, it might shorten NASA's winter of discontent ever so slightly.

Or maybe this eye above the pink martian sky may spy MPL's parachute. Of course, depending on the wind (and the only anemometer in the vicinity is on the Lander), the chute might not be anywhere near the landing site ... or crash scene ... or crater.

Next lander may be cannibalized

NASA is in the dark, by design. Once the Polar Lander turned its back to Earth and began its fiery descent toward the surface, it went incommunicado. To save weight (and money) mission planners did not include a landing telemetry package, which would have allowed ground controllers Pasadena to monitor the spacecraft all the way to the surface. The last time any human heard from MPL was 15 minutes before landing ... or impact ... or augering in

So here's where footpad hits the tundra: the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander is practically a carbon copy of the Polar Lander. Same cruise ring. Same aeroshell. Same descent engines. Same lack of landing telemetry.

That is why the man in charge of space science for NASA, Ed Weiler, seems nearly certain of this: The '01 Lander will not fly and, in fact, may not leave the Clean Room at Lockheed Martin's Denver operation in one piece.

"We may cannibalize the '01 Lander," Weiler said, "and use the parts for future missions."

If Weiler has his way, the next Mars lander (whenever it may fly) will "have a lot more backup." And it's not as simple as adding another radio. He would like a more sophisticated landing radar system. The MPL radar did not have any hazard avoidance capability -- while the '03 Lander has a system that can spot a show-stopping boulder or crater. And Weiler is interested in backing up the radar with LIDAR (which measures distances with a laser instead of a radio beam).

"You can't do science until you land," Weiler says.

Starting with 'a clean slate'

And as for the science: That is the only thing that is not subject to review. The overall goals of the Mars missions: to learn about the red planet's climatic and geologic history; to look for signs of life; and to lay the groundwork for manned exploration -- all those goals remain immutable.

"Beyond that it is a clean slate," says Weiler. "I have taken the schedule off the table. I am encouraging the team to think out of the box."

So perhaps the Lander mission will morph into a second orbiter. Maybe that orbiter will be the cornerstone of a Martian GPS system to make things safer and easier for future missions. Maybe that second orbiter will carry a bunch of grapefruit-sized probes (a la Deep Space 2) that will test surface conditions at various locations (MPL's engines could have melted the tundra -- and dug its own grave). Maybe those probes will send back images as they plummet (like the Pentagon's smart bomb cameras). Ideas like this are being pitched and peer-reviewed as I write.

Meanwhile a troika of post-mortems continue. The Stephenson Committee -- which focused primarily on the Climate Orbiter loss -- is now finishing up a NASA-wide look at impact of Faster, Better, Cheaper. An internal JPL team -- and a Blue Ribbon board led by retired aerospace executive Tom Young will finish up their work in March.

So it appears we will know when -- and how -- NASA will be returning to Mars about a year before the next launch window.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for

Downlinks Archive

In-Depth Special: Exploring Mars

Report: Scientists knew Mars Lander could set down in deep valley
January 7, 2000
European Mars mission looks for lessons in polar lander loss
December 29, 1999
Global Surveyor to search for lost Mars lander
December 14, 1999
Mars images provide 'compelling' evidence of past ocean
Decmeber 10, 1999
Mission to Mars reveals need for more bandwidth
Decmeber 10, 1999
John Glenn talks Mars, launches new book
Decmeber 6, 1999
Mars Lander course correction goes 'smoothly'
November 30, 1999

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