Bringing Forward Mars Polar Science

April 9, 2018

Periodically, scientific discoveries at Mars prompt new thinking and paradigm shifts in the way we perceive the Red Planet. If these changes are significant enough, it merits an adjustment to our strategy when we explore. One such topic up for discussion is the importance of Mars polar science, or the study of the poles. The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group discussed this at their committee meeting last week in Crystal City, Virginia.

Side note: we also discussed the MEPAG meeting in our most recent episode of Red Planet Review. It’s a weekly podcast available for our $3+ patrons discussing Mars headlines. Listen to the sample episode here or follow the link below to pledge support!

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Who or what is MEPAG?

MEPAG (or Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group) is a community-led committee that informally advises NASA on scientific goals for the exploration of Mars. The community maintains a goals document, which is a summary of the questions that are high priority for investigations. MEPAG forwards this document to the formal NASA advisory bodies or departments, like the Mars Exploration Program, the Planetary Science Advisory Committee or even the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Really, it’s main goal is to ensure the Planetary Science community has a say in what NASA does next at Mars. Here are the four major components of the current goals document.

  1. Determine if Mars ever supported life
  2. Understand the processes and history of climate on Mars
  3. Understand the origin and evolution of Mars as geological system
  4. Prepare for human exploration

The four primary goals of Mars Exploration, as outlined by MEPAG

What’s prompting a change to these goals?

In late 2016, the Lunar and Planetary Institute (the same body which organizes LPSC) hosted the Sixth International Conference on Mars Polar Science and Exploration in Reykjavik, Iceland. Scientists from different disciplines studying both Earth and Mars joined forces to share current results, outstanding questions, and future priorities. One hundred and two highly engaged attendees from 11 countries participated. It became clear that Mars Polar Science was both very important not well represented in NASA’s current goals and objectives. So, the community sought to change that.

Early in 2017, the community published a report that was a summary of the conference and a presentation of five main scientific questions that the Polar science community wants answers for. This was the first step in instituting change in the scientific direction of NASA’s Mars program.

Why is polar science important?

Planetary scientists sometimes overlook polar science. It’s part geology and part climate, which makes it challenging to study by someone from only one discipline. However, this dual-nature also makes it especially important to study because it has such global reach in the formation of today’s Mars.

Every year, when the poles are in their winter season and fully enveloped in darkness, upwards of 30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere condenses on the surface, forming metre-thick layers of frost. In the summer, it sublimates back in to the atmosphere and the cycle repeats. That’s a dramatic amount of change for Mars’ atmosphere. With it comes a multitude of planetary wide changes, including cloud formations, dust movement and temperature changes. This movement of CO2 drives the Martian climate.

Each seasonal cycle leaves a layer of dust and debris on the layered deposits of the poles, preserving a record of the past seasons like rings in a tree trunk. The data in the layers of the poles are invaluable in understanding Mars’ past climate. These data can then be correlated with the geologic record to understand and confirm theories on how the planets features were formed. We might think, for example, that a certain feature on Mars could be formed if temperatures were sufficiently high, but have no way to confirm that geologically. Climate studies help geology and vice versa.

From the summary report:

The poles are a record of past climate, and polar processes drive current climate. The poles influence movement of sand in dunes, dust in the atmosphere, isotopic ratios, availability of volatiles, melting point and stability of liquid water – through time.

A view of the North Polar Layer Deposit. Like rings in a tree, these layers tell a story of past climate. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

What’s next?

The committee has taken the report from the Polar Science Conference and incorporated them into a proposal to change MEPAG’s goals document. This is a great step and the final proposal will be available this summer. A public consultation period will be available prior to finalization. But what does this mean for actual Mars exploration?

You won’t see some kind of polar lander dropping down into Chasma Boreale next launch window. These changes take a long time to propagate through the NASA system. Changes to this document may inform next year’s budget requests for NASA that could theoretically have impacts on funding for current or future missions. But chances are it will have little impact there.

Next year, the 9th International Conference on Mars is being held in Pasadena. It’s an important gathering of Mars scientists that often drives changes to MEPAG’s goals document as well. So, expect to see another revision following that meeting. From there, MEPAG will forward the goals document to the Planetary Science Decadal Survey committee, which formally kicks off in 2020. That’s where a major impact can be made. The Decadal Survey is (as its name implies), a once in a decade guiding document formally requested by NASA to inform its planetary science agenda. The current one expires in 2023. If Mars polar science is as important as its community believes, then maybe we’ll see it codified in the Decadal Survey. If it is, then perhaps we’ll see more missions focused on exploring the amazing and beautiful poles of Mars.

Get some Mars swag and help a podcast out

You can also support WeMartians by picking up a sweet Mars T-Shirt in our online shop. So, why not creep on the Mars poles yourself with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Creepin’ design? Or, check out the vintage Californian-style InSight tee Good Vibes, which you can still get before it’s May 5th launch if you order today.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: Creepin’

NASA InSight: Good Vibes

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