Proposal for Mars Exploration by
Robotic Plane
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Source: MSNBC

By Alan Boyle

Mars airplaneFour leading space groups are proposing to fly a robot-controlled airplane over the “Grand Canyon” of Mars. The plan to survey Valles Marineris is among 29 proposals under consideration for funding through NASA's Discovery program. Only a handful of missions will make the cut.

THE MARS AIRBORNE Geophysical Explorer, or MAGE mission, would involve sending a 300-pound aircraft folded up within a spacecraft, according to Malin Space Science Systems, one of the partners on the MAGE team. An entry vehicle containing the airplane would separate from a cruise and relay vehicle for deployment about 6,500 feet above the Martian surface. Once the plane is disgorged from its carrier, aerodynamic forces would “fly” the wings into place. For three hours, the hydrazine-fueled plane would survey the huge canyon along a zigzagging 1,100-mile flight. Images and other data would be uplinked to the cruise and relay vehicle as it flew past the Red Planet, and those data would in turn be sent back to Earth over the following month.

The MAGE mission would look back into aviation history as well as ahead into the future of Martian exploration. The Mars airplane itself would be named Kitty Hawk. Valles Marineris is hugely significant in its own right: The canyon system is one of Mars' most prominent features, spanning a distance equivalent to the width of the continental United States, with a five-mile drop from rim to floor. It's among the targets being considered for future robotic landings on Mars.

NASA photo of Mars shows Valles Marineris

Right now, the MAGE mission exists only on paper, as a proposal for future funding through NASA's Discovery program — the same program that funded Mars Pathfinder as well as Lunar Prospector. The program, intended as a showcase of NASA's “faster, cheaper, better” approach to space exploration, funds missions with a total life-cycle cost of $299 million or less, including launch. MAGE would be budgeted at $246 million, said Michael Ravine, advanced projects manager for Malin Space Science Systems.

The space agency received 26 Discovery proposals for full space missions, as well as three proposals for “missions of opportunity” that would basically fly standby. Those proposals are being analyzed, with an initial cut to be made in November. Eventually, NASA expects to fund only one or two of the full missions. NASA isn't releasing details about any of the proposals, although it has said seven of them relate to Mars and its moons. However, some information about specific proposals have come from their sponsors. Malin Space Science Systems, based in San Diego, issued a statement about MAGE Monday. Here are some details about MAGE's partners and their contributions, as reported by Malin:

* Malin Space Science Systems has produced six instruments for other Mars missions, including cameras for Mars Global Surveyor. For MAGE, it would develop a gravity gradiometer, a magnetometer, an electric field experiment, a laser altimeter, an infrared imaging system and six cameras with surface resolutions ranging down to 2 inches.

* NASA's Ames Research Center, which has managed the Lunar Prospector mission, would take a similar role in the MAGE mission - which includes providing systems engineering and being responsible for in-flight operations.

* The Naval Research Laboratory built the spacecraft for the Pentagon-funded 1994 Clementine mission to observe the moon. The laboratory would develop the Kitty Hawk aircraft, drawing upon its experience with military deployable aircraft programs.

* Orbital Sciences Corp., which provides a variety of space services including the air-based Pegasus launch system, would develop the entry vehicle containing Kitty Hawk, as well as the cruise and relay vehicle.

Ravine said MAGE would be launched atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket. The mission would include an educational and public outreach program involving the First Flight Foundation, the Civil Air Patrol and the Air and Space Museum. Michael Malin, principal investigator for the MAGE mission, said Valles Marineris offered a “four-dimensional window” into Mars' geophysical past and present. In his statement, Malin said MAGE would address the need to identify the best places for gathering Martian samples to return to Earth during later missions, as well as the need for high-resolution reconnaissance of large-scale geological features on the Red Planet. “In both these cases, the resolutions needed are not attainable from orbiting spacecraft,” he said. “Covering thousands of miles of extremely rough terrain is not possible with surface rovers.”

MAGE would not be in competition with the main series of Mars Surveyor missions, which is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and funded under a separate budget category. But it's certain that MAGE would be in competition with new Discovery proposals involving JPL. For example, scientists at JPL are among those proposing Discovery missions to near-Earth objects such as asteroids and comets. And although it may or may not be the subject of a current Discovery proposal, JPL's planetary aerobot program has proposed sending a series of spacecraft with scientific balloons to study Mars from above.


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