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Alumni Newsletter: July '08 to July '09

by Richard C. Lewis

(This article originally appeared in the 7/29/09 edition of Today at Brown; reprinted with permission.)

With a new administrator, Charles Bolden Jr., settling in at NASA this summer, planetary geologists at Brown and elsewhere are looking forward to an active program of Mars exploration in the coming decade.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars exploration program, briefed conference participants on the Mars Science Laboratory, which should be ready to launch in 2011. All photo credits: John Abromowski

Where [Bolden]’s going to go with this … will unfold soon,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars exploration program at NASA, on July 29, 2009. He was speaking to members of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), the scientific body charged with advising NASA on its Mars exploration program. MEPAG held two days of meetings on the Brown campus, discussing future missions, landing sites, and key scientific questions about the red planet.

MEPAG’s executive committee is chaired by John “Jack” Mustard (left), professor in the Planetary Geosciences Group. Opening the session, Mustard said MEPAG was convening at a crucial moment as NASA wrestles with an uncertain planetary exploration budget. So far, the agency is continuing to plan at least three missions to Mars within the next decade.

“It’s a significant moment in time for the Mars exploration program and MEPAG to affirm its scientific priorities,” Mustard told more than 100 scientists who were attending the meeting, in Salomon Hall.

In early July, NASA’s Bolden, 62, told the Associated Press that he would be “incredibly disappointed” if people aren’t on Mars in his lifetime.

Europe’s Marcello Coradini: Hoping for ESA/NASA partnership. >>>

McCuistion assured the audience that Mars remains important to NASA. He said NASA was excited about partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA) on future missions. The agencies hope to establish a joint Mars exploration initiative by 2016, McCuistion said, with an eye toward sending a spacecraft to retrieve Martian samples and return them to Earth sometime after 2020. “We need to partner up to accomplish more,” McCuistion said.

The ESA, facing budget problems of its own, sees real rewards to partnering with NASA on Mars missions, Marcello Coradini, head of the explorations office and coordinator of solar systems missions at ESA, told the group.

There are currently two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and one lander, Phoenix, on Mars. They have either ceased operating or have exceeded their projected lifetimes. Meanwhile, the launch of the next scheduled rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), has been pushed back two years, to 2011, as scientists wrestle with engineering issues and debate continues concerning the best place to land.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars exploration program, briefed the participants on MSL. He said the craft would be ready to launch in 2011 and predicted it will help answer whether life exists beyond Earth. “MSL is taking a critical step in that direction,” he said.

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