Mars Science Laboratory

In October 2000, NASA unveiled its ambitious Mars Exploration Program for the next two decades. It included orbiters, landers, rovers and even a sample return mission. Among the six major exploration programs was a mobile scientific laboratory. This rover would be even larger than the Mars Exploration Rovers with even more scientific capability. In its press release on 26 October, 2000, the agency stated, "NASA proposes to develop and to launch a long-range, long-duration mobile science laboratory that will be a major leap forward in surface measurements and will pave the way for a future sample return mission. NASA is studying options to launch this mobile science laboratory mission as early as 2007. This capability will also demonstrate the technology for accurate landing and hazard avoidance in order to reach what may be very promising but difficult-to-reach scientific sites.''

The formal name of this spacecraft became the Mars Science Laboratory. Everything about the MSL would be big: the rover, its scientific return and its projected budget of more than 850 million dollars. This was never intended to be a Discovery mission, but instead, the program was conceived to see what could be accomplished in Mars surface exploration when budget and schedule were not so constrained. With up to ten times the scientific instrument payload of the MER rovers, a mission length of at least one Martian year (equivalent to two Earth years) and the capability of operating for years without the need for solar power, the potential landing sites for the MSL will encompass much of the planet's surface. Its primary mission is to study the past and present habitability of the planet Mars. In other words, it will search for evidence of past life and possible evidence of present microbial life, and determine whether future crewed missions to Mars can remain on the planet for extended periods and extract the essential elements for living on the Martian surface.

While the Mars Exploration Rovers were the focus of attention around the world during 2003 and 2004, the managers, engineers and scientists at NASA Headquarters and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were quietly working on the scientific scope, initial design and mission planning of MSL, now scheduled for launch in 2009. In April 2004, NASA issued an Announcement of Opportunity for proposals to provide the payload instruments and scientific investigations they would perform on the MSL. In December 2004, NASA selected eight of the proposals and announced their principal investigators:

• Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera; Michael Malin, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California.

• ChemCam: Laser Induced Remote Sensing for Chemistry and MicroImaging; Roger Weins, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

• MAHLI: Mars Hand Lens Imager for the Mars Science Laboratory; Kenneth Edgett, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California.

• The Alpha-Particle X-ray Spectrometer for Mars Science Laboratory; Ralf Gellert, Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, Germany.

From the rim of "Erebus Crater,'' Opportunity took this image on sol 608 (9 October 2005). Martian soil has drifted over portions of rock outcrop within the crater. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech/Cornell)

• CheMin: An X-ray Diffraction/X-ray Fluorescence instrument for definitive mineralogical analysis in the Analytical Laboratory of Mars Science Laboratory; David Blake, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.

• Radiation Assessment Detector; Donald Hassler, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

• Mars Descent Imager; Michael Malin, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California.

• Sample Analysis at Mars with an integrated suite consisting of a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer; Paul Mahaffy, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; Greenbelt, Maryland.

The MSL would also have instruments provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science. The next phase of these proposals would be preliminary design studies to integrate the scientific instruments on the MSL platform and to establish the development, test and delivery schedule of the instrument payloads in keeping with the MSL program schedule.

"MSL is the next logical step beyond the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers,'' said Dr. Ghassern Asrar, NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, when announcing the winning proposals. "It will use a unique set of analytical tools to study the Red Planet for over a year and unveil the past and present conditions for habitability of Mars.''

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