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Amassing momentum for Mars.

Amassing momentum for Mars

The idea of going back to Mars, wherethe last arrivals were the Viking space-craft in 1976, has been much discussed in recent years, with issues ranging from keeping a planned U.S. Mars orbiter on track in NASA's budget to the possibility of joining with the Soviet Union for human exploration of the planet. But discussions and possibilities, to say nothing of recommendations by various panels and advisory groups, are a long way from making decisions to do something.

Last week, a Soviet researcher toldscientists attending the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston about tentatively approved plans for three Soviet Mars missions (and a possible fourth) to begin next year. Together, they include orbiters, landers, "hoppers,' balloons, surface-roving vehicles and a round-trip mission to bring Martian samples back to earth. The day after the Soviet presentation, NASA officials described the status of U.S. efforts: that the one approved NASA mission, an orbiting craft called the Mars Observer, appeared to be locked to a 1992 launching by the space shuttle, despite pressure to arrange a 1990 launch aboard a conventional rocket, and that subsequent possibilities are beginning a new round of studies.

The first visit to Mars since Viking isto be a Soviet mission called Phobos, named for the larger of the two little Martian moons and due to be launched in July of 1988. The mission involves a pair of orbiters, each placed in paths whose greatest distances from the planet will be about 6,000 kilometers, approximately the distance of the moon Phobos. Each is designed to deploy a landing craft to Phobos's surface, as well as a "hopper' that will be set loose by a spring-like device in a series of jumps across the terrain. The orbiters, meanwhile, are to be stationed as little as 50 meters away, equipped with instruments such as a laser mass spectrometer that can zap the surface with a laser beam and analyze the resulting vapor to study its composition. Finally, if the first Phobos craft achieves its scientific objectives, the second may be diverted to try the same thing a Deimos, the other Martian moon.

Next on the road to Mars could be theU.S. Mars Observer, which could be launched as early as 1990 if in the next few weeks Congress comes up with enough additional money for NASA to buy a rocket to do the job. It is an unlikely possibility, however--NASA has yet to ask officially for any extra funding for such "expendable launch vehicles,' despite the urgings of numerous groups and individuals--and the space agency is still planning for a shuttle launch in 1992.

The second Soviet mission is plannedfor that same year, having been moved up two years from 1994. It will be a large orbiter, with a scientific payload weighing 200 to 250 kilograms, according to Valeriy Barsukov, director of the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry in Moscow. The craft is also to carry a pair of "penetrators,' spear-like probes that will be sent down from orbit (at about 200 meters per second) to stick in the Martian surface, carrying a variety of instruments to conduct studies from their implanted positions. In addition, the orbiter is to deploy a French-designed balloon to move up and down through the atmosphere, possibly traveling as much as 5,000 km over the landscape, covering about 500 km per day in the Martian winds. Yet another possibility, still under study, is the addition of a small surface-rover, though that option, says Barsukov, would depend on the availability of a rocket more powerful than the present Proton launcher to deliver the whole package from earth.

Also awaiting approval is anotherrover to be launched in 1994, which would include a pair of sampling devices called "moles,' to gather material for analysis from as deep as 25 to 30 meters. Among its other tasks, the rover would be instrumented for what one of Barsukov's viewgraphs lists as "biological or paleobiological' studies. Heretofore, the only instruments so far sent to another planet to look for signs of life have been the "biology packages' that went to Mars aboard the Viking landing craft. Their data were inconclusive.

Questions of biology, however, are farfrom the only items of interest about the planet. One wide-ranging goal is a Soviet mission to bring pieces of Mars back to earth. It is scheduled for launch in 1996, though Barsukov notes that the mission's complexity is likely to make 1998 a more realistic date. Carried out in cooperation with France and the European Space Agency, the mission's list of proposed sensors includes a syntheticaperture radar for detailed mapping of the surface from orbit. A similar device was used to radar-map the northern hemisphere of Venus from the Soviet Venera 15 and 16 spacecraft (as well as the U.S. Pioneer Venus orbiter), which also deployed wind-tracking balloons into the atmosphere.

As for U.S. plans for a Martian sample-returnmission, some NASA officials envision that such a project could begin in the agency's 1993 budget for launching in 1998, with samples due back on earth in the year 2001.
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Title Annotation:space research
Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 28, 1987
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