Robotic missions aid in-situ resource identification for human Mars missions

by Chris Gebhardt

The draw of mounting a human mission to Mars has held the public’s attention since telescopic observations of the red planet began centuries ago. With the recent discovery of current-day saltwater flows on Mars, the notion of usable, in-situ resources for Martian human missions now places greater emphasis on robotic precursor missions in the next decade.

In-situ resources drive future Mars mission locations:

Mounting a mission to Mars comes with multiple considerations and hazards, not the least of which is finding a suitable landing site that can meet all the mission needs while providing a work and living location that allows for the potential use of in-situ resources.

2015-06-05-001226But that is not the only consideration, especially when a human mission is under consideration.

Here, the available resources at the site must be considered against the terrain, specifically a need to ensure that the landing site is wide and smooth enough to handle the landing of multiple pre-deployment elements within a relatively confined space prior to accepting the arrival of a Mars surface crew.

As part of a multi-layered Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) regarding SLS’s evolvability for a Mars campaign from July, NASA has identified a potential landing site for its anticipated 2030s and 2040s human surface missions to Mars.

2015-10-19-151014The potential landing site – dubbed “Site A” – is inside Jezero Crater, which is located in the Syrtis Major quadrangle – one of a series of 30 quadrangle maps of Mars used by the United States Geological Survey Astrogeology Research Program – in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

Of particular note here for this opening choice for NASA’s first human missions to Mars are two things: Jezero Crater is thought to have once been a water-filled region of the red planet and it is the current, primary proposed landing site for the Mars 2020 rover mission, a follow-on of the 2012 Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover that landed in Gale Crater.

In fact, this quadrangle of Mars is an old shield volcano with at least two calderas and areas of dikes and inverted terrain with multiple areas of interest for the world’s space agencies, including Jezero Crater, the Syrtis Major Planum, the Isidis Planitia, and the Terra Sabaea.

2015-10-19-145212So interesting is this area that the European Space Agency’s British Beagle 2 lander was sent to the Isidis Planitia on 25 December 2003.

While Beagle 2 failed to successfully deploy all of its solar panels, which subsequently resulted in its inability to deploy its communications antenna, the quadrangle was once again placed in lander prominence when NASA considered the Nili Fossae Trough as one of seven potential landing sites for the Curiosity rover in 2012.

Now, Jezero Crater is considered the primary contender for the landing site of Curiosity’s bigger cousin, the Mars 2020 rover.

2014-09-02 11_05_50-www.nasa.gov_sites_default_files_files_Green_Joint_PSD_HEO_TAGGED.pdfMoreover, in another link to the SLS Evolvability TIM presentation, available for download on L2, Mars 2020 is considered a primary robotic precursor mission to the eventual landing of humans on Mars.

The fact that Jezero Crater is such a prime exploration candidate has to do with a fan-delta area of rich clay deposits within the crater.

According to the NASA TIM on SLS Evolvability, “Jezero contains Fe-Mg smectite clay indicative of multiple episodes of fluvial/aqueous activity on ancient Mars, elevating the potential for preservation of organic material.”

Since these clays form in the presence of water, and NASA’s stated path toward exploration of Mars has been to “follow the water,” Jezero Crater is once again a prime contender for up-close robotic exploration.

2015-10-19-150934Moreover, Jezero Crater would give NASA an excellent opportunity to test one of the proposed primary objectives of the Mars 2020 mission: searching for signs of ancient Martian life.

The possibility of finding such evidence in a once water-rich area of Mars makes scientific sense given the proclivity of life in water-rich areas on Earth.

Nonetheless, searching for signs of ancient life is not the most-important aspect of the Mars 2020 mission in terms of exploration of the red planet.

In recent years, a growing understanding of interplanetary human missions has revolved around the idea of using in-situ resources instead of taking every possible resource along.

To this end, an important part of the Mars 2020 mission will be to identify and examine the resources at its landing site.

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In this manner, robotic precursor missions, such as Curiosity and Mars 2020, will help NASA better identify potential landing sites for human missions as well as the resources available to the crew upon their arrival.

Follow the water?

However, it may now not just be mineral and geologic resources that could provide in-situ support for astronauts who will one day live and work on Mars.

2015-09-28-184750The recent discovery by NASA of current-day saltwater flows on Mars at Hale Crater provides a tantalizing option of harnessing the water that exists on Mars for human exploration purposes.

While the water flows identified at Hale Crater are saltwater flows, desalination and purification of that water would potentially provide a valuable, life-sustaining resource for Martian astronauts.

Of course, a significant and detailed study of the saltwater on Mars would be needed before any type of in-situ resource utilization of it were approved.

These studies would be paramount to confirming that nothing living exists in the saltwater as NASA would not be in the business of killing potential indigenous Martian life.

However, the odds of NASA selecting Hale Crater over Jezero Crater for the Mars 2020 mission are currently unknown and unlikely.

While NASA could certainly alter its plans, Hale Crater appears nowhere on the current list of potential sites identified by NASA and the Mars 2020 science teams – indicating that, despite recent confirmations of saltwater flows at the crater, the crater itself does not meet the mission’s overall scientific objectives.

The current list of potential Mars 2020 landing sites include, Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater, Eberswalde Crater, Holden Crater, Jezero Crater, Mawrth Vallis, the Northeastern region of Syrtis Major Planum, Nili Fossae, and the Southwestern region of Melas Chasma.

However, that does not rule out the potential future visit of NASA or commercial missions to Hale Crater as it’s not just NASA that’s interested in the data returned from such robotic precursor missions.

2015-10-19-144628SpaceX has not been silent about their desire to mount human missions to the red planet.

Preliminary plans – set for partial release after SpaceX returns to a regular launch cadence with its returning Falcon 9 rocket – involve Dragon 2 scouting missions ahead of a highly ambitious and evolving Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) based campaign beginning in the next decade.

As such, knowledge gained by robotic precursor missions and information about resources on the Martian surface would prove highly beneficial to the private company’s aspirations for mounting human missions to Mars.

Regardless, it is abundantly clear that any human mission to Mars, be it NASA, international, or commercial, will rely on the natural resources Mars has to offer – something that will greatly shape the world’s space agencies’ preparations for human exploration of another planet.

(Images via NASA, SpaceX and L2).

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