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What? *Another* rover going to Mars…? Hmmm.

There was a huge disturbance in the space enthusiast community’s version of the Force last night, when it was announced at a huge science conference in San Francisco that NASA is going to send *another* rover to explore Mars in 2020. Reactions ranged from stunned silence to incredulity, confusion to anger, and beyond. I read the announcement and subsequent comments and responses on Twitter with a mixture of bafflement and disbelief. Another rover? To Mars? Really?

Wow. Didn’t see that coming.

The initial reaction from many at the conference and reporting on it from elsewhere was that it was a rather bizarre decision, given that money is very short for planetary exploration – and getting shorter, with budget cuts looming – and it’s not that long ago that NASA pulled out of a rover mission with ESA too. And there are many scientists in the planetary science community who are at best envious of, and at worst mad as hell at, NASA’s continuing exploration of – some would say obsession with -Mars. What about Enceladus? they say. Or Titan? Or Europa? Why go to Mars AGAIN when there are many other, arguably more fascinating places Out There just waiting to be explored, and that COULD BE explored for a lot less than the cost of another Mars mission?

After the announcement last night many people were furious that the “new rover” – to be based on Curiosity, as far as its design is concerned – would cost a fortune, and would take away money that could and should otherwise be spent on exploring one of those previously mentioned worlds. I’ll admit I felt uneasy about that myself – ok, I’m a martian explorer to my core, to my DNA, and I am steadfast in my support of NASA’s Mars exploration program, but even I would find it very hard to justify building and launching a Curiosity 2 if that meant money was going to be cut from other missions, or if those missions were cancelled altogether – but a very informative and clear article on The Planetary Society’s blog makes iot VERY clear that this is money that has already been budgeted *for* Mars exploration, it’s not money that is going to be sliced bloodily off missions to other destinations. You can read that remarkable piece here…

2020 Mars rover in context

So. NASA is going to design and build another Mars rover, and launch it in 2020. And for all my passion for Mars, for all my years of dedication to its exploration, of support for NASA and the amazing people who do these amazing things, I have to admit I’ve got very, very mixed feelings about this news.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that a Mars nut like me would greet the news of another rover mission to Mars with all the excitement of a dog finding a juicy bone under a Christmas tree. But even my excitement has to be tempered with realism.

These are very difficult times for people. Money is short, and space missions are unbelievably expensive. Heart-stoppingly expensive. Space missions to Mars have more public support than most, I think it;s fair to say, because Mars has a hold on our imaginations unrivalled by any other body in the solar system. Why? Because we’ve grown up being told by scientists that despite it being a barren, frozen, rock-strewn, dust-covered desert world, it’s a place where extraterrestrial life might exist, or at least have existed in the past. SO people generally look more favourably upon missions dedicated to exploring Mars than exploring elsewhere because we are desperate to know if there’s Life On Mars, it really is as simple as that. And no matter how many NASA scientists, commentators, space journalists or bloggers insist that going to Mars to study its geology, its atmospheric processes and internal structure is just as exciting, the truth is that we’re going to Mars because of the “L” word – life. Either to see if there’s life there now, or if it once had life.

We really need to stop kidding ourselves, and each other, that people outside the scientific community give a **** about rock layers, erosion timetables and atmospheric pressures. They want to know if there are, or ever were, martians there. Simple as that.

Soooo… this new rover… the question is, what’s it going to Mars FOR? What’s it going to DO there? Because, honestly, if it’s just going to go there to be a Curiosity 2, to study geology, to sniff air, to eat dirt, then that’s not right, it’s just not. That would almost just be spending money for the sake of it, and I honestly think NASA would have a VERY hard time justifying that.

What it might go there for, according to many commentators, is to collect samples of martian rock and dirt and gather them up in one place to be collected, and returned to Earth, by another spacecraft at a later date. NASA is really wanting to stage a “Sample Return” mission to Mars in the future, and having Curiosity 2 collect rock and mineral samples *for* that mission would be in line with the space agency’s plans.

But

I personally think that NASA really has to use the next Mars rover to answer, once and for all, the question of life on Mars.

Now I can imagine some of you reading this scoffing at that, or sneering, or shaking your heads in disapproval. I know that many engineering types look down on astrobiology as some kind of lesser science than geology, or physics, or atmospheric studies, and dismiss astrobiology almost as a pseudo-science, not worthy of serious consideration or funding, but save it ok? You’ve had your shot at Mars, for years, for decades.  It’s time we went there to actually do something special, something that would make a difference to everyone, not just to professional rock breakers and microscope peerers who use the photographs and measurements to write papers full of squiggly charts and graphs, which conclude that although that mission told us a lot, we need another mission like it to find out even more.

We’ve looked for life on Mars already.. kind of. Viking tried, with technology limited by its time. Curiosity, NASA keeps telling us, ISN’T LOOKING FOR LIFE, not directly, but it MIGHT find chemical evidence showing ancient Mars wasa place where life might have existed. No, they say, it will take another mission to do that.

Well, this should be that “other mission”. To be frank, NASA has faffed about with this for far too long. The “L” word has always been something for “The future”, for “another mission”, for “another time”. Well, enough. Come on. No more delaying, no more procrastinating, no more dicking about with instruments which might find this, might find that, and might give us tantalising hints or clues about Mars’ habitability. Rocks have had their time. Geology has had its time. It’s time we went to Mars to look for life, plain and simple, with no distractions.

There will be pressure for “C2″ to be just another Curiosity with a rock collecting element added on. But it could, and should, be so much more. It should either be a wholly dedicated astrobiology mission, a rover packed with life detection instruments, or at least carry a suite of astrobiology instruments in its payload that would allow it to look seriously for life on Mars and, if it’s there, tell us something about what it is.

Because seriously, NASA can’t just keep going to Mars to take beautiful pictures of rocks and scooping up teeny scoopfuls of dust and dirt looking for “fascinating chemistry”. People – and by “people” I mean the people who pay for it, the taxpayers – aren’t going to keep putting their hands in their pockets forever. NASA enjoys huge public support and goodwill in the US, but if I was a US taxpayer I’d be seriously hacked off in 2020 if NASA just launched another robot geologist to Mars.

And yes, if I’m honest, I think even I would be a bit underwhelmed by another Curiosity. I don’t want to use the word “bored” but I don’t feel very excited at the prospect of yet another geology mission. I want a robot to go to Mars to do something incredible, something amazing, something genuinely “Earth-shaking”. I love Opportunity and Curiosity, everyone knowsI do, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with the people responsible for them. But another Opportunity? Another Curiosity? We have to move on.

The press release about the new rover states that scientists will soon be invited to propose instruments for the mission, and many of those will be brilliant I’m sure. But someone should just get the world’s best exobiology experts together, to form a Task Group or Think Tank or whatever you want to call it and have them design an instrument suite that will detect microbial life if it’s there. I’m sure they could do it, aren’t you? We must have got to that stage by now. Damn it, if you have to, if it’s the only way to do it, then just build another Beagle 2, put it on top of Curiosity 2 then drop it onto the surface after landing and let it go hunting!

I know many people will dismiss these thoughts as the ranting of a naive space enthusiast obsessed with Mars, and with looking for alien life. I can live with that. I can live with that because out here, in the real world, there are thousands, if not millions, of people like me, who just want to know, before we die, if there’s life on Mars or not. Scientists have teased us about it for generations, drip-feeding us information about the atmospheric pressure there, the humidity there, the amount of wate the dirt  may or may not contain, then told us “but we won’t know if there’s life there for another xx years, until a mission goes there to actually look for life”. Well enough! Stop playing with us! Get your act together and build a robot to carry a laboratory to Mars that will tell us, once and for all, if there’s life there. And if you’re going to pull out that old tired line about “Well, we’re still not sure what life is..” then get your bloody heads together and find out! That’s what you’re paid for! And when you’ve decided, send C2 to Mars and let it go hunting for that life without being distracted by rocks and dust, etc.

NASA… please… for the love of God… don’t just send another Curiosity to Mars. Don’t just go there to pick up a few rocks and drop them into a basket for yet another machine to go and collect and bring back to Earth, for scientists here to study. Grasp this opportunity to send a robot bloodhound to Barsoom and let it snuffle. Try to answer The Question once and for all.

You can’t lose. If it found life, our understanding of our place in the universe would change. If it didn’t, it would tell you much about the planet’s past and tell you you need to look elsewhere.

We’ve done rocks and dust to death. Time to think bigger, NASA.

I dare you.

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4 Responses

  1. An excellent post. I’m not a life-long Mars exploration fan: the Moon is my first love. But I am thrilled at the successes of Pathfinder, Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity and have high hopes that Curiosity will be a success, too. I was a bit surprised that NASA announced another Mars rover – the planetary science community isn’t getting a lot of support from NASA as it is, and another Mars mission seems to be over the top.

    The main reason I have uneasy feelings about MSL 2.0 is in fact the money. I’ve been following politics long enough to know that there is no such thing as ‘already allocated.’ Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were ‘already allocated’ – until they weren’t. The truth is that NASA is going to get a finite pot of money, and for the most part, how NASA decide to spend it is up to them. A billion dollars for a Mars rover is a billion dollars that is unavailable for other programs. And that money is genuinely needed. MESSENGER and Cassini are rumoured to be on the budgetary chopping block despite both missions being in excellent health. As you note, we bailed on the ESA rover over money.

    The larger problem for planetary science is that we just went through a Decadal Survey which set our priorities. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13117&page=71 How does another Mars rover fit within the larger context of Capital ‘S’ Science as a whole? I’m strongly reminded of the Space Transportation System which was originally conceived as a Space Shuttle to bring cargo to Low Earth Orbit, a Space Station to be the destination for that cargo, and the Space Tug to carry satellites to High Earth Orbit and back for servicing. In the end, the politics overrode the science, overrode everything sensible and mandated the Shuttle alone. Without a Space Station, the Shuttle’s huge cargo capacity was more or less wasted and the missions themselves a solution in search of a problem.

    I see the hand of politics in MSL2. The question then probably isn’t ‘Do we spend a billion more dollars on Mars and take a billion away from the outer planets?’ But rather, it’s more likely ‘Mars has draw with the public and we can justify that money. It’s Mars or you lose a billion in funding.’

  2. [...] long form reactions, Stu at the Cumbrian Sky blog typed up a nice essay that argued that another Mars rover should have a high-profile raison d’etre, like [...]

  3. I have to say, I was immediately angry when I heard this news as well. Curiosity is a NUCLEAR POWERED rover that will likely run for decades, barring any bad luck. Another rover mission would also push back a potential manned Mars mission as well. I also wholeheartedly agree that if NASA wants to build another rover to send exploring, there are other attractive destinations. I personally would love to see a 360 panorama on Titan, preferrably on the shore of one of the massive methane oceans thought to be there. True, it is much farther, and communications would be delayed even more than for Mars rovers. Not to mention temperature and other extremes. NASA too easily forgets its victories! The skycrane landing of curiosity was an awesome triumph of engineering. Come on NASA, lets get back to exploring!

  4. It is time for either a Europa probe and/or a Titan probe. These places hold inestimably greater scientific value than another slow shopping cart taking boring pictures of a dead red world (or worse, gimmicky pictures of itself or it’s parachute. Also, a probe to either Uranus or Neptune is way overdue – we don’t understand these types of planets very well.

    The problem is NASA – they have become a risk-averse federal jobs program for not particularly talented project managers who can’t get fired. Hate to say it, but I about halfway wouldn’t mind see it go away as an agency.

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