scrapping plans to place a dedicated telecommunications relay satellite in
orbit around Mars in 2009.
robotic explorers bound for the red planet early next decade than previously
anticipated, NASA has decided it can get by without the Mars Telecommunications
Orbiter, a satellite conceived to handle a now-forestalled avalanche of science
Doug McCuistion, Mars program director at NASA Headquarters
here, said the decision to cancel the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter was
driven by both a diminished need for a dedicated relay at Mars and the funding
requirements for other missions in astronomy, Earth science and to other
planets. In addition, NASA must begin preparing for the first human lunar
expeditions since the Apollo program three decades ago.
But NASA is
by no means abandoning the red planet.
two orbiters and two robotic rovers exploring Mars, and three more spacecraft
are bound for the red planet between this summer and 2009. NASA also still
plans to launch a low-cost, competitively selected Mars Scout mission in 2011.
long-proposed robotic missions to collect martian
samples and return them to Earth for study, as well as a series of so-called
human exploration precursor missions, have been put on hold for now.
described NASA's Mars exploration plans beyond 2010 as a work in progress, with
discoveries still to be made this decade shaping what NASA does in the next. McCuistion also said NASA has not given up on sending a
dedicated communications satellite to Mars, but is still assessing where such
an asset fits into the program. "The need for it has diminished in the
immediate term, but that doesn't mean we have abandoned the idea," McCuistion said.
Telecommunications Orbiter was to be built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of
Denver, the only company to bid on the project. Lockheed Martin entered into
negotiations this spring with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,
Calif., to build the $500 million satellite, but the talks had not yielded a
contract before NASA decided to pull the plug on the project.
craft was meant to be the first piece of a permanent communications
infrastructure intended to provide a link with Earth for all future Mars
missions. The satellite also was to be equipped with a science package NASA had
not yet selected and a laser optical communications experiment designed to
point the way to a highly reliable method for transmitting large amounts of
data back to Earth.
cancellation of the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter means NASA will only be
launching one spacecraft to Mars in 2009 -- the mobile, nuclear-powered Mars
Science Laboratory is expected to return an unprecedented science haul, but McCuistion said existing Mars data relay assets -- including
the Mars Odyssey craft launched in 2001, the Mars Global Surveyor launched in
1996, and the soon-to-be-launched Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter -- will be able to
handle the science rover's data flow back to Earth.
"We can get
all the data from Mars Science Lab back without [the Mars Telecommunications
Orbiter], and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is a key feature in that
obviously," he said.
Reconnaissance Orbiter is slated to launch Aug. 10 from Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station, Fla., aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. The $450 million satellite is
equipped with a large high-gain antenna and a powerful communications package,
including a Ka-band transmitter. After two years of science operations, the
spacecraft will be pressed into service as a communications relay for an
additional two years and perhaps as many as six.
actually came in light on our dry mass so we are able to add 51 kilograms more
propellant on the spacecraft," said Jim Graf, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "That enables us to continue
to operate at our science altitude of [480 kilometers] until 2014, so the
spacecraft can probably cover the Mars Science Laboratory's lifetime."
Even if the
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is not still operating in 2009, for whatever
reason, McCuistion said the Mars Science Laboratory
mission still could go forward.
certainly can still do" the mission, McCuistion said.
"We have Odyssey, which has fuel to last well into the next decade, and we
still have Mars Global Surveyor, which will last at least until the end of this
decade or longer based on fuel use, so we do have orbital assets for data
relay. We also have a direct-to-Earth capability on the Mars Science Laboratory
that obviously is not optimal."
the cancellation of the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter was mixed.
Alexander, director of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board
here, noted that Mars exploration has long commanded a large share of NASA's
space science spending and said he was pleased to see NASA Administrator Mike
Griffin follow through on his pledge to restore balance to the science program.
"In the grand scheme of things, there were people who felt that the emphasis on
Mars was starting to come at the expense of other areas," Alexander said. "This
looks to me like a case of Griffin following through on his promise to
rebalance the program."
Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., also
read the cancellation as part of Griffin's effort to juggle competing budget
priorities, but he was not happy about it.
very supportive of Griffin having to make moves to get the [Crew Exploration
Vehicle] moving quickly and dealing with all the space station issues --
including goring some oxes along the way -- but taking
Mars out of the exploration program, as was done in the budget cuts, and
cutting back on the infrastructure for an eventual Mars outpost could create
another dead-ended program with no destination and no public support," Friedman