Thursday, January 11, 2007

New probes go head to head, one crashes and burns

NASA announced on Monday that initial funding had been granted to run feasibility studies on two new Mars missions (as part of the Scout programme) with a tentative launch date for the winning proposal of 2011. Both missions to be considered are concerned with learning more about the upper atmosphere of Mars. MAVEN stands for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, and will focus on upper atmosphere dynamics. The "Great Escape mission" (a much nicer name) would perform a similar mission, but might also be able to measure atmospheric constituents such as methane. Both probes are at the very earliest stage of development and some $2 million will be spent over the next nine-months before NASA picks one of the two missions for full development. The total mission cost is expected to be in the region of $475 million. Also announced at the same time was further funding to develop greater ties with the European effort to explore Mars. The full NASA press release can be read here.

Unmentioned in the above press release is the sad news that a great proposal to send an aircraft to Mars was not selected in this round of approvals. Scientists at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton were understandably disappointed that their trail-blazing idea did not get the go-ahead, but the possibility exists to resubmit the proposal at a later date. The site for the Ares craft is here.