WASHINGTON – NASA and three international partners have signed a cooperation agreement on a proposed mission to search for ice deposits beneath the surface of Mars, the precursor of human missions there.
In a February 3 statement, NASA said it has signed a “declaration of intent” with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Italian space agency ASI regarding the ‘International Mars Ice Mapper. Under this agreement, agencies will consider mission concepts and potential roles and responsibilities.
NASA introduced the concept of mission in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 a year ago. The spacecraft would be launched as early as 2026 and would orbit Mars, using radar to search for deposits of ice beneath the Martian surface that could be studied by future missions to the Martian surface, including human missions.
In its statement, NASA did not disclose the potential roles of international partners on the mission. However, in previous advisory committee meetings, agency officials have said that ASC will provide the radar instrument, JAXA the spacecraft bus, and ASI the spacecraft communication subsystem. NASA would be responsible for the overall management of the mission and the launch of the spacecraft.
“This innovative partnership model for Mars Ice Mapper combines our global experience and enables cost sharing at all levels to make this mission more achievable for all interested parties,” Jim Watzin, NASA senior advisor supporting planning for the Mars mission and former head of the Mars Exploration Program agency, said in the statement.
NASA has not established a formal cost estimate for its part of the mission, but Watzin, speaking at a November meeting of a committee supporting the ongoing ten-year planetary science survey, said that the agency had estimated that its part of the mission would cost $ 185 million.
At that meeting, Watzin said the Mars Ice Mapper is an essential part of long-term planning for human missions to Mars, identifying locations where water ice may exist within 5-10 meters of the surface. and thus be accessible by crewed expeditions. “The Mars Ice Mapper mission has been identified as an essential precursor mission necessary to obtain this critical information so that we can decide where to go for the first human mission, and also how to prepare for this mission,” he said.
The mission encountered some skepticism from scientists on Mars, who question the priority given to an ice-mapping mission over other science goals. Watzin said at this November meeting that Mars Ice Mapper is a “precursor exploration mission” that also has scientific advantages, comparing it to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission originally launched to support the effort of Constellation lunar exploration but now part of NASA’s planetary science program. .
In its announcement of the statement of intent, NASA said the partners “will explore opportunities for carpooling enabling the mission” in the next phase of the Mars Ice Mapper study. “All scientific data from the mission would be made available to the international scientific community for planetary science and Mars reconnaissance. “
“Mapping near-surface water ice would reveal a still hidden part of the Martian hydrosphere and the stratification above it, which may help uncover the history of environmental changes on Mars and lead to our ability to answer the fundamental questions of whether Mars was ever home to microbial life or might still be today, “Eric Ianson, director of the Mars exploration program, said in the statement.
At a Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group meeting on Jan. 27, Ianson said that in addition to the statement of intent, NASA was preparing for a “pre-acquisition strategy meeting” in the near future. This meeting will decide on a primary focus for the Mars Ice Mapper mission and other matters before officially starting mission development.
Watzin, speaking at the same meeting, expected that a formal memorandum of understanding between the agencies participating in the mission would be ready in late spring or early summer. “This will bring the mission team together and then we can seriously begin to move forward with the implementation of this,” he said.
NASA’s statement of intent announcement included an illustration of Mars Ice Mapper communicating with three spacecraft in Martian orbit, acting as communication relays to Earth. The announcement did not discuss these relays, but agency officials have previously discussed developing a network of communications satellites on Mars, possibly through public-private partnerships, to support Mars. Ice Mapper.