Latest Mars orbiter will support human missions
's Maven mission to Mars is symptomatic of the global effort to put humans there—ambitious, but constrained by tight funding that demands international collaboration to cover costs.
Increasingly, former competitors in the space arena are accepting cooperation as the only way humans will ever reach Mars, and are willing to drop short-term gain for long-term success.
“We should take the best stuff available on the Earth,” says Vitaly Lopota, president and general designer of Russia's RSC Energia, which builds all of Russia's human-spaceflight hardware. “Beyond Earth, in deep space, we will be on the same route, and we should jointly implement it.”
Maven—the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe—used a Russian-powered Atlas V 401 to begin its 10-month trip to the red planet. As it lifted off into a cloudy Florida sky Nov. 18, on its way to analyze where the water went on Mars, clean-room technicians a few miles away worked to prepare's first Orion flight-test vehicle for a major European contribution.
Cleon Lacefield,'s Orion program manager, said shortly after the Maven launch that the first load-bearing fairings designed to protect the vehicle's European propulsion system during ascent were due to arrive two days later. That hardware is to fly on a dummy Orion service module next September, launched on a Delta IV Heavy to test the capsule at reentry speeds near those it will experience returning from the Moon or Mars. The next Orion to fly after that will include the European hardware.
That unmanned mission, the first for the SLS/Orion stack, is currently scheduled for the end of 2017, and will mark the beginning of a “stepping stone” approach through cislunar space designed to take humans to Mars in the 2030s. Lockheed Martin had originally planned to build the Orion service module itself. It yielded to NASA's need to save money by bringing in the European Space Agency andAstrium, its industrial supplier, as partners (AW&ST Jan. 21, p. 30).
“We really look forward to working with other industrial partners,” says Jim Crocker, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager for civil space, listing meetings with industry partners in Japan, Russia and several European nations “in the last few months.”
Crocker, Lopota and others participated in a symposium on human Mars exploration organized by Lockheed Martin to coincide with the Maven launch. They described a growing international network of space-industry companies working in tandem with their space-agency customers to devise the steps it will take to get humans to Mars, and to figure out who is best suited to do particular jobs.
Lopota described a pressurized way-station to deeper space at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrangian points that could be built using International Space Station techniques, with small Russian modules tended by crews arriving in Orion.
Ed Crawley, a member of the advisory panel chaired by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine set up at the beginning of the Obama administration to chart the future of human spaceflight, says the panel was discouraged from advocating international cooperation as the only solution to funding deep-space exploration. Now that “chapter of the Augustine report that didn't get written” has become administration policy, largely to hold down costs.
“There is a way that technology moves around internationally when the companies are allowed to do the bidding that is more natural than when the governments do the bidding,” Crawley said, citing the Russian RD-180 engine on the Atlas V built by United Launch Alliance as an example.
Lockheed Martin's investment in its own version of the Orion service module moved into the loss column when NASA brought in ESA to do the work. Crawley, a former head of the aeronautics and astronautics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who now heads the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, says he and a few like-minded academics are pulling together an international working group to analyze the exploration roadmaps devised by government space agencies and their industrial counterparts, to help rationalize the division of labor. Although U.S. and Japanese concerns have so far blocked China from membership in the emerging international exploration partnership (see page 50), Crawley said “in the long run it's inevitable that this would be an inclusive partnership, certainly inclusive of the major human spaceflight nations, which at this point you would have to say would include China.”
Developing and launching the Maven mission that brought the symposium panelists together came in under budget, to the delight of the NASA managers who oversee it. Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics says among factors contributing to that accomplishment are stable funding from NASA and his insistence that the mission remain focused on its primary objectives, avoiding expensive “science creep.”
That stands in stark contrast to the situation faced by NASA's human spaceflight managers with the prospect of further cuts through “across-the-board” sequestration. Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, says launching the first SLS/Orion mission in 2017 will depend on keeping the funding levels represented by the present continuing resolution, which expires in January. Managing the development is a matter of “trying to make as much progress as we can, based on what we know on any given day,” he says.
Overall, the Maven mission is budgeted at $671 million. With its on-time launch, the spacecraft will deliver nine atmospheric sensors into an elliptical orbit around Mars on Sept. 14, 2014. They were chosen to measure the processes scientists believe may have caused the transformation from a wet planet with a relatively thick atmosphere to the cold dry planet we see today. Data generated by Maven may also help engineers design a way to land the estimated 20-ton vehicles needed for human missions to the surface through that thin atmosphere.
Maven's sensors will study the processes that researchers believe stripped away the Martian atmosphere as its upper reaches were blasted by the solar wind, a process that also happens on Earth but with the protection of the planet's magnetic field (AW&ST Aug. 26, p. 40). The spacecraft will make “deep dives” into the upper and middle Martian atmosphere for in-situ measurements that can be correlated with broader data it generates.
Those dives—not deep enough to damage Maven —will provide information that may one day aid a human landing, according to Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for space technology at NASA headquarters, whose organization is working toward that end on inflatable hypersonic decelerators, more capable supersonic parachutes and supersonic retropropulsion.
“We have limited data,” Gazarik says. “Curiosity was the first time we measured comprehensively how do we fly through that atmosphere, what was the heat rate through the atmosphere, did we fly that vehicle like we predicted? Maven will also add to our ability to understand the Martian atmosphere.”