Visiting Mars, Again and Again

By | April 10, 2008

Model of the Mars Phoenix lander. The lander’s robotic arm will scrape away
surface dirt and ice on Mars, searching for organic molecules.
Photo Credit: University of Arizona.

There are several new missions set to explore the planet Mars over the next decade. Astrobiology Magazine recently discussed these missions with Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, and Luann Becker, a geochemist who is developing an instrument for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission.

Mars is preparing for an invasion from Earth. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity are still traveling across the surface of the Red Planet, but NASA and the European Space Agency are planning to send more missions over the next few years.

First up is the Mars Phoenix lander. Launched last year, this mission is due to arrive near the Martian north pole on May 25. The lander won’t be able to move around like the rovers — instead, it will stay in one place, scraping away at water ice just beneath the surface in a search for the organic compounds that are thought to be necessary for life.

NASA’s next rover mission is the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL. A much larger rover than the ones currently on Mars, MSL will collect soil and rock samples and analyze them for organics. The planned launch for MSL is Fall of 2009, with an expected arrival in October 2010.

The European Space Agency also has plans for a rover. Called ExoMars, the projected launch date for this mission is 2013, with arrival in 2014. The ExoMars rover will have a drill that can dig deep into the subsurface, allowing scientists to search for evidence of water and organics. – ab

A layer of water ice coats the rocks and soil at the
Viking Lander 2 landing site, Utopia Planitia.
Image Credit: NASA.

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