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Wednesday, 29 May, 2002, 20:33 GMT 21:33 UK
Nasa says Mars assault is on
Montage of Nasa Mars missions for the next decade
A montage of Nasa Mars missions for the next decade

We are doing precisely what we need to do to send humans to Mars, Dr James Garvin, Nasa's senior Mars scientist, has told BBC News Online.


The underground ice is a remarkable discovery and the big question is: 'Is this the tip of the iceberg?'

Dr James Garvin
Dr Garvin is a researcher with an impressive track record in exploring the Red Planet and he is excited and inspired by the discovery of vast underground water-ice reservoirs on Mars.

Scientists have discovered there is so much ice beneath the surface in the polar regions of Mars that if it were to melt it would deluge the planet.

But where does this discovery fit in with the long-term exploration of the Red Planet, and what are the prospects of sending humans to Mars?

'Unprecedented assault'

If you think that the Mars Odyssey discovery of water is dramatic then, according to Dr Garvin, there is much more to come.

Mars water facts
Ice crystals less than one metre (three feet) below Mars surface
Located south of 60 degrees latitude
Melted, would create planet-wide ocean 500 metres deep
Nasa may commit to landing in less than 20 years
"What we have is an unprecedented assault on Mars," Dr Gavin said.

"We have even more contact with the planet than we did with the Moon before humans went there.

"We have missions at every launch opportunity through to 2009 and plans to increase the pace of exploration into the next decade," he added.

The next few missions will be surface rovers and advanced survey craft observing from orbit.

In 2004, Nasa hopes to place a mobile laboratory on to the surface, looking for what it calls are "chemical fossils" to trace the history and movement of water across the planet.

Dr James Garvin
Dr Garvin says Nasa programme is 'the right antecedent for man on Mars '
Because of these mission, by the end of the decade, we may have mineralogical maps of Mars that are better than those of the Earth. We should also have a much improved understanding of Martian weather, particularly on scales that would matter to human visitors.

"Mars is not the Moon. There are planetary dynamics there that blow away anything we have on the Moon," says Dr Garvin. "The planet is changing - exchanging gasses with itself - the weather systems are dynamic. The temperature variations are extreme."

By 2009, Nasa hopes to have the capability for pinpoint landings and the ability to roam many tens of kilometres across the surface.

Mars sample return

But James Garvin's biggest challenge is to bring a piece of the planet back to Earth.

Signs of recent water flowing on Mars
Signs of recent water flowing on Mars
"We have meteorites from Mars but my biggest task is to bring back a fresh piece of Mars. We know we need samples." But when?

"As soon as it is technically feasible. We have to do our homework and develop the technology we need. It will take us a decade. But when we can we will do it," he said.

But what about sending humans to Mars?

Sean O'Keefe, Nasa's new Administrator, has a vision that human explorers will move out into deep space.

"That's a vision not a programme, but I ask, 'what is the difference between what we are doing on Mars now and the preparation we would have to do for a manned Mars mission'. The answer is nothing.

"Our unmanned exploration of Mars is just the homework we need to be doing for any eventual manned mission. This programme is the right antecedent for man on Mars."

Dr Garvin points out that other areas of Nasa will be looking into the technologies needed to propel humans across interplanetary space, keep them alive in space and bring them back home.

And he is keen to put talk of a programme to put men on Mars into perspective.

"We will go but let's be sure what we are doing. It is a distance 1,500 times further than the distance to the Moon. In the history of human exploration there has never been such a leap as we will take from the Moon to Mars.

"To do it, we need to know more, develop better technology, and understand Mars better. That is what we are doing."


Mars Odyssey

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Mission to Mars
The BBC's science correspondent
See also:

28 May 02 | Science/Nature
04 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
22 May 02 | Science/Nature
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