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What's next for Mars exploration?

Now that NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander is settled in on the arctic plains of Mars, taking pictures and starting to gather samples, space agencies all over the world are planning and building the next robots and gadgets they plan to send to probe the mysteries of the red planet.
Image: Mars rover models
Full-scale models of (left to right) the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, Sojourner, and the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory.
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Now that NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander is settled in on the arctic plains of Mars, taking pictures and starting to gather samples, space agencies all over the world are planning and building the next robots and gadgets they plan to send to probe the mysteries of the red planet.

NASA plans to waste no time in getting back to Mars after Phoenix finishes its three-month mission. By September or October of next year, launch is set for the Mars Science Laboratory, a beefed-up rover that will further explore the Martian surface (it will be the largest vehicle ever sent to Mars).

And Americans won't be the only ones visiting the red planet: The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently working on its own rover, dubbed ExoMars, which would be equipped to scout out signs of past or present life on Mars. The Chinese and Russian space agencies are also collaborating on a mission to the planet's asteroid-like moon, Phobos.

The Mars Science Laboratory (which won't be the craft's final name) will be much larger than its Mars Exploration Rover (MER) cousins, Spirit and Opportunity, which are currently still cranking around the Martian surface. The "mega-rover" will weigh in at about 2,040 pounds (925 kg) — sort of the monster truck of Mars rovers.

This hefty size should allow the rover to take more instruments to Mars to poke and prod the surface — the payload will be about 10 instruments to be exact, weighing in at a total of 154 pounds (70 kg). Like other Mars landers and rovers before it, MSL will of course have cameras to snap pictures of the Martian landscape and help guide its six wheels across the terrain. One camera, the Mars Hand Lens Imager, will take extreme close-up shots of the surface.

But unlike the MERs, which were like geologists on Mars, MSL is designed to be more of a chemist. One MSL tool, called ChemCam, will be new to Mars. It is a laser that can be used to zap Martian rocks to create a fine dust that it can then analyze to determine the rock's composition. These scans should help scientists determine what to take a closer look at.

"If we like that rock, we get up close and personal with that rock," said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where MSL is being designed and assembled.

The rover can do this with its drill, which can suction onto a rock, bore down into it, and extract a sample of the powder to be analyzed by the instruments inside the rover, including an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument and an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument called CheMin.

The rover's size will also enable it to venture further across the Martian landscape, up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) from its landing site, which it is projected to reach sometime during July 2010.

The wheels over the rover, which will be attached to long, spindly legs, will enable the vehicle to roll over rocks if it needs to, "but the fact that we can climb over the rocks doesn't mean we want to on Mars," Li said, because of the possible damage they could do to the craft.

Go, go 'Sky Crane'
With the proposed launch date just a little more than a year away, engineers at JPL are working to get the craft, which is among the biggest they have ever assembled, ready in time.

"We're in the middle of putting the spacecraft together," Li said, likening the job to "a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle."

The MSL team has finished the wheels and deck of the rover and are working on building the avionics and computer power distribution system that will go inside and help run the vehicle. The incomplete rover is affectionately referred to as the "Scarecrow."

"It has no brain, that's why they call it the Scarecrow," Li said.

Where exactly MSL will land has yet to be determined. NASA has its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter looking at six candidate sites within 30 degrees north and south latitude of the equator.

To get to its landing site, wherever that ends up being, MSL will have a cruise stage to guide it to Mars, similar to other spacecraft, a heat shield to protect it during its initial descent, and a parachute and back shell that will separate from the craft during its descent, also like other Martian probes.

But after this stage, MSL will use a completely new way of touching down on the surface, with a system called Sky Crane. The Sky Crane will have cords that attach it to the lander. As the rover falls to the surface, the Sky Crane's thrusters should slow their descent and then "very, very, very slowly," it will lower the rover down with the cords, Li said.

As this is happening, the rover unfolds its wheels. When these touch the surface, the Sky Crane senses, "Aha! I've landed," Li said, and detaches its cords from the rover and flies away and crashes on the surface.

The mission is slated to last for two Earth years (one Martian year). While Spirit and Opportunity have lasted far longer than their three-month-long planned mission (and are still kicking), Li and other NASA scientists aren't counting on MSL lasting longer, because like both MERs, the mechanical joints of MSL will eventually wear down with age.

"We're designing it to last two years," Li said.

Mission to the moon
The European Space Agency (ESA) is also planning their own rover that would be aimed at looking for extinct or current life on Mars.

Dubbed ExoMars, the 650 million euro ($876 million) mission would include instruments, including a few from the United States, aimed at characterizing the Martian biological environment. One of the planned instruments is a drill that could bore into the terrain to about 8 feet (2.5 meters) below the surface, which has never been done before on Mars.

ExoMars is currently slated to lift off in 2013 aboard either a European Ariane 5 rocket or a Russian Proton rocket. It would include an orbiter to relay communications, a descent module and a rover. The rover would land either using an inflatable breaking system or parachute system.

ESA is planning to power the rover using solar arrays. The rover would be able to travel a few kilometers over the Martian surface, navigating autonomously using optical sensors.

The Chinese and Russian space agencies are also currently planning a Martian mission, but theirs will be aimed at one of Mars' two moons, Phobos. Russia last tried to reach the tiny satellite with its Phobos-1 and Phobos-2 probes, which were lost in 1988 and 1999, respectively.

The new Phobos-Grunt probe, currently being built at Lavochkin Scientific Production Association in Khimki, Russia, would launch in 2009. The anticipated three-year-long mission aims to deliver rocks from Phobos back to Earth, map the surface of the satellite and analyze the plasma and dust that surrounds it.

Of course these steps are only just the next of many steps in exploring our ruddy neighbor. Eventually, both NASA and the ESA hope to return samples of Mars' red-orange rocks and one day send humans to take the first actual step on the planet.