Nasa has released details of its Mars exploration plan, stating is has never been as close to sending astronauts to Mars.
The plan relies on three components that will together enable the space agency to develop technical capabilities and scientific understanding needed before humans can be sent deep into space.
“Nasa’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at Nasa headquarters. “This strategy charts a course toward horizon goals, while delivering near-term benefits, and defining a resilient architecture that can accommodate budgetary changes, political priorities, new scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and evolving partnerships."
Part of the activities in the run up to the Mars mission will focus on the International Space Station (ISS). Research activities focusing on testing new technologies and advancing the understanding of human health and performance will provide bases for a future long-term mission.
Research on the ISS will include studies of human health and behaviour, the development of advanced communications systems and 3D printing as well as material testing and development of in-situ resource utilisation systems and Mars mission class environmental control and life support systems.
But Nasa also wants to establish new research facilities around the Moon, with the so called cislunar space – the space within the Moon’s orbits – serving as a proving ground for Nasa to simulate deep-space operations, gradually weaning the missions off the constant support of ground-based teams.
The cislunar operations will include a series of exploration missions starting with the first test of the Mars-grade SLS rocket and the Orion space capsule in 2018. In 2020, Nasa plans to conduct a robotic mission to an asteroid and move the asteroid to the cislunar space for detailed examination.
The space agency also wants to establish a space station in the vicinity of the Moon to test systems for long-duration missions and perfect recycling and resource optimisation systems needed for a mission without resupply possibilities, such as the mission to Mars.
The final step in the plan is what Nasa calls Earth-independent activities that will see Nasa’s missions moving farther and farther away from the Earth and the Moon with the eventual goal of building habitats on the surface of the Red Planet.
Nasa expects to collaborate on Mars exploration with its international partners. It said reaching Mars and eventually establishing a permanent colony there would require development of new technologies for making fuel, water, oxygen and building materials from local resources and building advanced communications system that can overcome the 20-minute signal delay caused by the distance between the Earth and Mars.
“Nasa is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,” said Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden. “In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international and partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week.”