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NASA Mulls Mars Technology ‘Pathfinder’ Landing Mission

NASA ‘Pathfinder’ Landing Mission1e-News® | The NEWS Company…JERUSALEM, October 15, 2015 : Mission planners at NASA headquarters and its field centers are weighing a robotic Mars-landing mission as early as 2026 to flight test critical technologies with subscale components in preparation for a human landing at least a decade later. The work, disclosed at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, reveals agency thinking on the transition from its planned “proving ground” in the area around the Moon to the first activities around the Red Planet. It also adds some detail to the “Journey to Mars” report NASA released Oct. 8 at the urging of congressional critics, who say the agency’s human-exploration plan is too vague.

“We’re still studying the overall plan,” said Christopher Moore, a manager in the Advanced Exploration Systems Division at NASA headquarters. “We have several different mission architectures we’re analyzing in parallel.”

The “robotic pathfinder” mission to the surface would launch on a heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) in the planetary window available in 2026 or in 2028, loaded with scientific instruments and technology experiments aimed at future human exploration. Moore said the notional lander would be designed to test advanced entry, descent and landing (EDL) techniques on a subscale level for the larger payloads that would need to be placed on the Martian surface in advance of human explorers. Once on the surface, it would evaluate in situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology to produce propellant for a human return from Mars.

NASA has been using airborne infrared imagery to study supersonic retropropulsion (see photo) on some of SpaceX’s attempts to fly its Falcon 9 first stage back to the ocean surface in reusability studies. That work would feed directly into the subscale EDL testing in the Martian atmosphere.

“We’re actually looking at three different types of EDL combinations,” Moore told Aviation Week after presenting a paper on a possible precursor human mission to the Martian moon Phobos. “We’re looking at a HIAD [Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator] plus supersonic retropropulsion, and a deployable aeroshell – it’s called Adept [Adaptable Deployable Entry and Placement Technology], plus supersonic retropropulsion, and then a mid-[lift over drag] aeroshell which is basically a rigid aeroshell.”

Moore said the pathfinder mission could also carry an upgrade of the ISRU experiment planned for the Mars 2020 rover in development. That equipment would extract oxygen from the planet’s carbon-dioxide atmosphere to use as a propellant.

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