Updates from the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group

February 26, 2018

Last week, members of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) held a virtual meeting (VM1). It precedes their face to face summit in early April. If you’re not familiar with MEPAG, here’s a brief explainer from their website on their objective.

The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) is responsible for providing science input needed to plan and prioritize Mars exploration activities. MEPAG serves as a community-based, interdisciplinary forum for inquiry and analysis in support of Mars exploration objectives. To carry out its role, the MEPAG updates goals, objectives, investigations and required measurements for robotic and human exploration of Mars in response to new discoveries and directions on the basis of the widest possible community outreach.

The two hour webcast covered updates to the upcoming Mars 2020 rover as well as the Mars Sample Return mission architecture currently being considered. The event didn’t get a lot of press, but if you weren’t able to listen in live, Jeff Foust over at SpaceNews.com did a great explainer and tied it in to the budget request that also dropped recently. You can also see the slides for the meeting on the MEPAG website. And I have a few things I want to comment on!

Mars Micro Orbiter

Planetary cubesats fascinate me. The first one to ever visit Mars will launch along with InSight in May, the Mars Cubesat One (MarCO). I spoke about it extensively with Farah Alibay on Episode 36. Last year at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Houston, NASA announced a few concepts including two that would visit Mars. We covered this along with the rest of the conference in Episode 21.

It seems another concept is under consideration, the Mars Micro Orbiter (MMO). From the SpaceNews article, quoting Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program.

The spacecraft is a 12-unit cubesat that would launch as a secondary payload and use onboard propulsion to travel to and enter orbit around Mars to perform global environmental monitoring.

The Mars Micro Orbiter concept slide from the MEPAG VM1 Presentation. Credit: MEPAG

Mars climate studies are something I need to get in to more because they are really important, especially as we consider human exploration. If you think about how difficult it is to predict the weather on Earth next week, a planet we’ve been living on our entire lives, imagine what it’s like for Mars. Global mapping like this would be tremendously valuable.

The concept is headed by Mike Malin from San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS). You might recognize MSSS as the manufacturer and operator of some of the most famous cameras on Mars. Thanks to them we got the Mars Observer Camera on Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s CTX camera, and Curiosity’s Mastcam and MAHLI camera, among others.

Also note the caption in the lower right of the slide above: Target LR (Launch Readiness): 2020, which would indicate this is designed to fly with the Mars2020 rover and separate from the Centaur upper stage after its final burn towards Mars, much like MarCO will with InSight. I’m very excited to see the planned briefing at LPSC this year.

The Mars Helicopter

One of the most exciting technological developments for the Mars 2020 (to me at least) is the proposed Mars Helicopter. Think of it as a small drone that would travel with the rover to the surface, then fly around in a scouting capacity to help rover planners decide their route. The idea has not officially been approved for flight yet, but development seems to be going along well. NASA has flown the drone for a combined 86 minutes in a Mars environment. However, a decision is still pending. From SpaceNews.com:

NASA has not made a decision to include it on Mars 2020, though. “There’s certainly a chance,” he said at the MEPAG meeting when asked if it could fly on that mission. A decision would likely come in a month or two, he added.

Green said the decision to add the helicopter to Mars 2020 will depend on both its technical progress and “an adequate budget” to complete its development. “It’s going through its reviews. So far, it’s doing well,” he said. “It has a ways to go.”

Update on the Mars Helicopter design progress. Credit: MEPAG

The benefits of a Mars Drone could be really significant. Route planning today involves a combination of orbital imagery, which is at best 30cm resolution thanks to the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This means that hazardous rocks smaller than that can’t be seen. The rover can compensate for this with its own local cameras, but they cannot see over rises in terrain. This means that in some cases time could wasted by climbing a rise, then discovering that the route beyond is impassable. The Mars Helicopter could give bird’s eye views of the surrounding areas.

There’s also a coolness factor that can’t be ignored. One of our past guests, Mike Seibert, put it best.

If you want to learn more about the concept, there’s an old but still useful video from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that goes over the concept.

Mars Sample Return

There was a significant update on the Mars Sample Return architecture. This includes the Mars Ascent Vehicle (which takes Mars 2020’s cached sample to orbit) and the rendezvous strategy to connect the Sample Return Orbiter with the sample for return to Earth. This update follows the “Lean” Sample Return plans presented in August, which I covered in great detail for WeMartians Patrons in an Off the Cuff episode. You can hear that audio and all the other bonus content for just $1/month on Patreon.

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The presentation goes into significant detail on the development process for the ascent vehicle. I am by no means a rocket propulsion expert, so I won’t try and dissect these details to any great degree. However, I will say the progress so far on testing this technology impresses me. Multiple engine firings have occurred so far of the proposed hybrid motor on the ascent vehicle, and more are scheduled this year. Here’s the Ascent Vehicle diagram.

What the Mars Ascent Vehicle might look like. Credit: MEPAG

It also described some of the concepts for orbital rendezvous. Along with ascent, it’s one of the most challenging parts of this mission. However, the group reported that the concepts are well understood. The mission basically separates this component into three phases, using different combinations of sensors and orbital data to eventually capture the small sphere that will hold the samples.

Mars Sample Return Orbital Rendezvous Phases. Credit: MEPAG


I love seeing these updates. For most of the year we don’t get a lot of information on the planning phases of these far-out missions. Mars 2020 rover is launching in a little over two years, but the next component might not launch until 2026. Much of the technology is still immature, but I’m feeling very positive about the results so far. In April we’ll get a broader meeting that will really give us more on the Mars Exploration Program. Until then, we’ll have to savour this powerpoint!

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