Artist’s impression of entry of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory  (NASA/JPL/CALTECH)

In 2018, Earth and Mars will reach points in their orbit that bring their closest point in 15 years, ideal for a fuel-efficient and fast trip between the two.  NASA wants to be in a position to take advantage of the proximity.

Its newly formed Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) will assist the agency in developing a new strategy for the exploration of the Red Planet.  Accordingly, MPPG put out a call to all Americans for proposals to determine the mission’s objectives.  It will soon release software and social media tools for the public to use on Facebook and Twitter.

The deadline is May 10, with the final decision announced in August of this year.

The formation of MPPG is in response to public fallout NASA experienced when budgetary restraints forced it to withdraw from the ESA-based ExoMars mission earlier this year.  The group is hoping that public involvement in the mission will once again put Mars in the spotlight.

The mission could be an orbiter or a lander.

The only constraint is cost.  It can’t be more costly than the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) satellite NASA will launch next year.  The price tag is around $625,000,000.

In making the decision about the 2018 mission, NASA will consider information based on data returning with the Mars Science Laboratory’s rover Curiosity, expected to land August 6th.

Curiosity has a sensor package to measure the effects of ground radiation and ionization on humans walking on the surface as well as soil analysis measurements to discover if Mars might be toxic to astronauts.  Sensors will bring back turbulence data vital to designing heavy manned landers.

reported by Discovery News     April 16, 2012


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