Nature – NASA is working with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to plan a mission that would search for evidence of life buried in the ice of Martian dirt. The NASA science hardware would fly to the Red Planet aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which the company is developing to ferry cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The “Red Dragon” mission, which could be ready to launch by 2018, would carry a cost of about $500 million or less.
Christopher McKay, principal investigator at Ames for the Mars proposal, called ‘Icebreaker’, says that the mission would target polar terrain where ice is present near the surface, similar to that probed by the Phoenix spacecraft in 2008. Capable of piercing Martian permafrost a metre thick, the robotic drill would retrieve samples for an onboard lab that would look for DNA and enzymes.
The most challenging part of any Mars mission is taking a spacecraft through the Martian atmosphere at high speed and then slowing it down to a soft landing. Proponents of the Red Dragon concept say that this could be done using the eight small rocket motors that will be added to the capsule for escape from the Falcon 9 rocket — a requirement for carrying humans, in case of an aborted launch. These motors would slow the capsule’s descent and allow it to land tail-first, says John Karcz, a space scientist at Ames who is leading NASA’s evaluation of the concept.
Scott Hubbard, an aeronautical engineer at Stanford University in California and a former Ames director, is sceptical, questioning whether the retro-rockets alone could decelerate the capsule. All previous Mars landers have used parachutes. He notes that a capsule designed to operate near Earth will need extensive changes to cope with the communications challenges and temperature extremes in interplanetary space. “All space is not the same, and deep space is quite different.”
Another mission proposed for 2018, a rover that would gather rocks in the first part of a three-stage effort to bring samples back to Earth, would cost $2.5 billion — a figure that NASA hopes to split with the European Space Agency. But that hasn’t been enough to placate US President Barack Obama’s budget advisers, who are wary of the $8.5-billion total cost of the multi-launch project and are threatening to leave the missions out of future budget requests.
McKay says some colleagues are fretting that Red Dragon will undermine the push for the 2018 rover mission. “I can see how some people would see that as threatening,” he says, but adds that if Red Dragon ends up as the cheapest way to Mars, it should get a fair hearing. He says that Ames and SpaceX will refine the proposal in preparation for a planetary-mission competition that could begin in 2013.