Sunday, November 06, 2016

A Lot of Organizations are Looking for Funding for Mars Research

          By Chuck  Black

Bolstered by recent SpaceX announcements that the company will soon begin developing the technology and infrastructure necessary to support future Mars missions and follow-up statements of support from US space agency NASA, a variety of academics and entrepreneurs have begun pitching their expertise in the Martian environment.

One of those organisations is the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The CSA Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR). As outlined on the CSA MESR website, "the six-wheeled rover can carry a robotic arm equipped with a microscope and mini-corer to drill into rocks, take sample and perform analysis of rocks using its high definition microscope instrument." The rover was built under contract to the CSA by MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), using a variety of partners and subcontractors including Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP), the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Autonomous Space Robotics Lab (ASRL) and Space Flight Laboratory (SFL), the University of Western Ontario, McGill University, Memorial University, Brock University, York University, the University of Winnipeg and Turquoise Technology. To see the full video on the MESR, simply click on the graphic above. Screenshot c/o CSA.

Its mission is a difficult one. As outlined in the November 2nd, 2016 AM980 post, "Western Students Partner With Canadian Space Agency To Return To Mars–Almost," students and researchers "from campuses across the country have teamed up for a public demonstration of their capabilities" in Utah, which is thought to have a similar surface structure to that of Mars. The simulation will run until November 18th.

As outlined in the October 31st, 2016 post, "Canadian Researchers Aim to Be Ready When the International Space Community Embarks on a Mars Sample Return Mission," the Mars Sample Return Analogue Mission (CanMars2016) annually brings together "over 50 scientists and engineers from across Canada and international collaborators from the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom" to test the Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR).

Of course, as outlined in the September 26th, 2016 post, "The REAL Reason Why Canada Won't Be Participating in the NASA Resolve Mission Anytime Soon, Probably!," the CSA has been looking for funding and partners for a planetary rover mission since Marc Garneau was CSA president in the early 2000's.

In the 2009 - 2010 federal budget, $110Mln CDN was allocated over three years "for space robotics research and development," much of which quickly ended up funding research on various Canadian rover designs, including the MESR.

But none of that money was ever allocated for "full life cycle funding," which covers an actual mission. For the CSA to be able to do anything more than continue testing its rovers in an Earth analogue, it needs more funding.

NASA AMES graphic showing a "Red Dragon" Mars sample return mission using SpaceX derived hardware. As outlined in the April 26th, 2016 Popular Mechanics post, "SpaceX Announces a 2018 Mission to Mars," the plan "was to have the Red Dragon capsule pick up samples gathered by the Mars 2020 rover and bring them back to Earth. A potential Red Dragon sample return would launch on a SpaceX Heavy Falcon rocket, descend to the Martian surface using onboard thrusters, grab samples from an existing rover with a robotic arm, and launch those samples back to Earth in a Mars ascent vehicle contained within the capsule." Graphic c/o NASA AMES.

And here's where the real problem begins. There are a lot of organisations and agencies with the capacity to build simulated Martian missions similar to what the CSA has been doing for the last few years.

The November 5th, 2016 Miami Herald post, "Researchers training in Hawaii to simulate Mars mission" describes a very similar mission "to develop protocols that would be used on a real Mars mission to identify and protect samples that could host life." The program is part of the Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT) project, which is funded through the NASA Planetary Science & Technology Through Analog Research (PSTAR) program

For those who would enjoy a trip to Poland, the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) is preparing to conduct a Mars analog simulation mission in Poland during 2017. SGAC is a global non-governmental, non-profit (US 501(c)3) organisation which aims to represent university students and young space professionals to the United Nations, space agencies, industry, and academia.

More Mars analog missions will pop up if new money from SpaceX, NASA and the international community becomes available. The specialized expertise required to operate rovers has also become more widely available and less costly since CSA began its development work 15 years ago.

Here's hoping that the CSA's current expertise remains relevant.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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