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Friday, 23 June, 2000, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
What now for Mars?
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A manned landing is the ultimate goal
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The possibility of water on Mars will revitalise our efforts to explore our neighbouring world, on which life could have started and may still exist today.

Nasa has produced stunning pictures of crater walls that appear to have channels cut in them by running, liquid water. It is something nobody expected, and shows just how much we still have to learn about the Red Planet.

It is a discovery that offers new possibilities and quite a few challenges.

It comes at a time when Nasa's Mars missions are, with the exception of an orbiter to be launched next year, on hold.

The only probe that is currently scheduled to touch down on Mars is the Beagle 2 lander on the European Space Agency's Mars Express craft. It will land in late 2003 and "sniff" around for life.

'Wet' regions

Unfortunately, Beagle 2 is limited in its landing sites to near the equator of the Red Planet, and the sites of recent water identified by Drs Malin and Edgett in their historic research are all, bar one, above 30 deg latitude. In other words, they are out of reach for Beagle 2.

Nasa has yet to decide what it will do in 2003 when the planets are in the right alignment for a launch. Whether the agency goes for an orbiter or a lander will be decided next month.

Channels Nasa
Manned missions might be necessary to find the nature of the channels
My guess is that they will go for a lander to touch down in one of the new "wet" sites. It is a scientific mission that is too delicious to resist. It will be a very tall order to get the mission ready in three years, but if it is not too big, or done too cheaply, it should be possible.

Nasa will have to face the difficult question of how to ensure that this time, unlike Mars Polar Lander last year, it can get the probe down safely. A successful mission would then form the basis for a fleet of similar probes to be put down at various points on the planet's surface.

Nasa, and its new "Mars Czar", appointed after last year's fiasco involving the loss of two Mars probes, will also have to get the sample return mission proposals back on track. These are the missions that aim to return Mars rocks to Earth. The fact is that we can only make a limited number of tests on Mars. We need a piece of Mars rock under investigation in an Earth laboratory.

Propulsion technology

In the long run, people will go to Mars - though it is hard to say when. Experts talk of 15-20 years, which really means they have no idea. But we do know what we have to do to get a crew there.

Firstly, we need to know more about Mars and about the space environment the astronauts will face on their lengthy mission. Perhaps some of the interesting research into new propulsion techniques being carried out at Nasa will help speed their journey.

Any colony would need water. Taking it with them from Earth would be very difficult and would be a factor that would dominate the design of the entire mission.

Getting water from Mars would make all the difference. And that was one of the reasons why Thursday's announcement of possible, recent, running water on the Martian surface was so exciting and so significant. It would make exploration of the Red Planet by a manned mission so much easier if the astronauts could access supplies already on Mars.

Improved technology should help the colony "live off the land" using what is there to drink, and make oxygen and rocket fuel.

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See also:

22 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Water may flow on Mars
23 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
'We're quite excited' - Nasa
22 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Mars in pictures
09 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Martian poles like cheese
27 Aug 99 | Sci/Tech
Life on Mars - new claims
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