Four Reasons an Orbiting Laboratory Could be the Future of Mars Exploration
Geologist Sonja Day is studying a Martian rock sample while orbiting thousands of kilometers above the Red Planet.
Hours later, she will control an unmanned airplane across the planet’s skies, while her crewmates depart for a landing mission on Phobos, Mars’ largest moon.
While Sonja and her crewmates are fictional, the first real humans to visit Mars are likely already in school. By 2028, humans could become an interplanetary species, and the Mars Base Camp would be the solution to help humanity learn more about the planet before sending astronauts to the surface.
The concept for Mars Base Camp is simple:
Transport astronauts from Earth to a Mars-orbiting laboratory to perform scientific exploration, analyze rock and soil samples, and confirm the ideal place to land humans on the surface in the 2030s.
HEAR FROM THE EXPERT
Senior Systems Engineer
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
It takes time to get to Mars—whether you’re sending a human or an electronic command to a spacecraft. In fact, from Earth, it takes about 20 minutes to send a command to a spacecraft on Mars.
By eliminating the distance, scientists can complete more scientific collection and analysis and command robots on the surface in near real-time.
"By eliminating distance, you’re drastically speeding up the scientific method loop so you can collect data, analyze it and plan your next move within seconds, instead of years in advance."
- Steve Jolly, Chief Engineer, Civil Space at Lockheed Martin
“Our progress in deep space so far can be characterized by the launch of complex robots with missions and commands that were planned years in advance,” said Steve Jolly, chief engineer at Lockheed Martin. “By eliminating distance, you’re drastically speeding up the scientific method loop so you can collect data, analyze it and plan your next move within seconds, instead of years in advance. It’s the difference between planning your footsteps and planning your vacation.”
The proliferation of small electronics that power unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and CubeSats along with higher satellite bandwidth, will allow astronauts to virtually explore the planet in real-time and react as the surface changes. Similar to studying a living organism, capturing a snapshot in time will not provide as much context as steady observation over time.
THE MARS FLYER
Much like skipping a road trip for a flight, aerial vehicles can cover ground more quickly than surface vehicles. By operating an UAV called the “Mars Flyer” from an orbiting laboratory, astronauts could learn more about the topological features of the Red Planet while identifying future areas to collect rock or atmospheric samples.
The goal of these missions would be to collect and analyze samples of Mars to determine the origins of the planet and search for signs of life. Methane, which is attributed to Earth’s biological origin, was discovered last year by the Mars Curiosity Rover, and future collections could give scientists a better clue about Mars’ past.
The drone flyovers would also help validate future landing zones for a manned mission—much faster than a rover ever could. The surface of Mars is an unforgiving landscape for a descending spacecraft. With deep canyons, expansive craters and mountainous volcanoes, selecting a flat landing zone with room for multiple spacecraft is a must for any extended human mission.
HEAR ABOUT LANDING ON MARS
DRILLING FOR GEOLOGICAL DISCOVERIES
The story of a planet is often discovered deep beneath the soil, and so far, Mars’ geological secrets remain hidden. By using a robot to dig deep beneath the red rocky surface, scientists can search for signs of past life and clues about what changed the planet’s climate and landscape.
HEAR ABOUT DYNAMIC EXPLORATION OF MARS
Samples could return to the Mars Base Camp where astronauts would collect and analyze them. This field geology concept, enabled by the close proximity of humans to the Martian surface, could dramatically improve the diversity and quality of samples brought back to Earth for study.
LUNAR OUTPOSTS: PHOBOS AND DEIMOS
Before stepping foot on our nearest planetary neighbor, visiting each of Mars’ moons will likely happen first—though you would not necessarily call the visits a “landing.”
HEAR ABOUT MARS BASE CAMP FEATURES
“With the moons of Mars, you’re not landing on them—it’s more like you’re rubbing up against them,” said Robert Chambers, senior systems engineer at Lockheed Martin. “The gravity on Phobos and Deimos is so low that if you dropped a wrench from waist high, it would take more than 30 seconds for it to hit the ground.”
So why visit the moons before Mars?
- Firstly, scientists believe that the coating of Martian soil on the surface of the moons caused by run-ins with the Red Planet will help them better understand the origins of the moons and Mars.
- Secondly, scientists believe the moons are rich in ice, and humans could use this ice for resources on the way to or from Mars in future missions—like an inter-planetary filling station.
SCIENCE THAT'S CLOSER THAN YOU THINK
The Mars Base Camp concept all begins with and relies on Orion, the world’s only crew capsule capable of withstanding the punishing journey into deep-space.
Orion and NASA’s Space Launch System will complete testing for human deep space exploration in 2018 during Exploration Mission-1, the final flight before astronauts are on board.
Also in 2018, the InSight lander will deploy to Mars and explore its deep interior to understand how the rocky planet was shaped more than four billion years ago.
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