Probing a geological question on Mars: What is the correct price for a robotic scientific mission to another planet?

NASA’s upcoming Insight’s mission is a lander designed to probe the seismic environment of Mars. Equipped with a seismometer, the mission’s main scientific objectives is to understand the geological activity of present day Mars, a goal that is on the one side, controversial, but on the other, useful and with an expensive price tag.


Mars is one of the four innermost planets of the solar system, and is defined by its rocky nature, relative to the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. Similar to Earth early in its history, Mars may have a metallic core surrounded by a liquid mantle with an outer layer of crust. The key fundamental question for planetary geologists: is there a global magnetic field within the core of the planet now? Beyond probing the magnetic activity within the core of Mars, another interesting question revolves around the state and level of geological activities arising from moving mantle beneath the Mars crust. Such geological activity could manifest as earthquakes or volcanic activity similar to that on Earth.


Armed with a magnetometer, the Insight probe could also measure the extant magnetic field strength at the surface of the planet, which billions of years ago, harbored a global magnetic field that helped protected the planet’s atmosphere. It was believed that with sudden disappearance of the liquid metallic core that helped provided the global magnetic field, Mars progressively lost its atmosphere, which was cleaved by interaction with solar wind – comprising charged particles from giant corona mass ejection from the sun.


Being a lander, Insight is limited by the scientific payout from a costly mission. Although suited for listening on both nearby and distant geological activities in the Mars crust, the constraints of a lander meant that many possible scientific instruments could not be used for surveying other interesting geological features of its landing zone. Perhaps due to its requirement for an acoustically quiet environment for listening to distant mantle movement, instruments such as a drill that could impinge on this critical capability have to be eliminated from the scientific payload.


In sync with recent NASA’s focus on reducing cost through reusing proven platforms for future missions with capabilities tailored to the specific mission objectives of the endeavor, the Insight mission, which is scheduled for launch in 2018, is based on the design and architecture of the Phoenix lander in 2008. But, at the end of the day, expensive space missions are funded by taxpayers’ dollars; thus, a pertinent and important question will be the relevance of the mission objectives in the context of advancing human knowledge and curiosity for the cosmos and, more importantly, what is the acceptable price tag associated with the robotic scientific mission?


Space is unforgiving to humans, and human space flight requires expensive and deliberate human support systems to be in place. Looking at the cost calculus, the price associated with training an astronaut is exorbitant compared to equipment cost. Hence, most space agencies around the world have opted for robotic space missions to explore nearby planetary bodies, such as asteroids and planets. On the other hand, human space flight has been restricted to low earth orbit since the Apollo era, with the destination being various space laboratories such as the Skylab and the International Space Station.


Besides cost, the punishing radiation environment of outer space beyond the protection of the magnetic field of Earth meant that long duration space flight is dangerous and currently not feasible from the perspective of providing adequate protection of humans in space. Looking at the cosmos and the immediate neighborhood of Earth, robotic space flight is thus the only option available for scientists, national governments and their space agencies interested in exploring unknowns in the universe, such as a nearby planetary body (Mars or Venus), an asteroid or a comet.


Coming back to the central question, what is a relevant price tag for a robotic space mission to another planet? And what is a useful conceptual model for thinking about the cost equation? From my perspective, I think the cost benefit ratio firmly rest in the knowledge that could glean from the mission objectives of the robotic probe. In particular, if the mission tackles a deep and important question such as examining the habitability of Mars, or how the solar wind shaves off the upper atmosphere of the same planet, knowledge obtained from such missions would certainly justify the cost of the mission if overall budgetary control on cost explosions, common in many space missions, is achievable. But, should we be hampered by cost in our endeavor to dream big in scientific research?


I guess an incremental approach must be taken in charting a path towards realizing a larger scientific goal such as landing a human on Mars, an objective set forth by former U.S. President Barack Obama. An approach such as this would help ameliorate risks on multiple fronts: chief amongst which is that pertaining to mission success. Another would be the technological hurdles impeding the development of parts and components for the spacecraft.   


Finally, is there a useful model for framing the cost equation in relation to space exploration? I think a fundamental one would be the opportunity cost of the money spent in space endeavor compared to improving the livelihood of common people in the streets. Specifically, if a country does not have adequate resources for funding good social programs able to provide socioeconomic uplift to the underprivilege, expenditure on space research should be restricted and the type of space missions pursued should be similarly curtailed to those such as the development of commercial communication satellites and weather satellites for remote sensing.


Note that long duration missions to outer space has usually been restricted to large space faring nations such as the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan and China, given their greater economic clout and technological prowess. However, in recent years, India has bucked the trend and successfully sent innovative robotic space missions to Mars with an eye on gaining important fundamental knowledge at a margin of the cost of its counterpart mission conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Specifically, the Mars Atmosphere Volatiles Evolution mission (MAVEN), comprising significantly more instruments than its counterpart mission by the Indian space agency, is substantially more expensive. Although arguable once the potential scientific yield of MAVEN is taken into account, the speed as well as inexpensive nature of the Indian orbiter for examining the presence of biosignature gases such as methane in the Mars atmosphere should be taken as a case example of how determination and a desire to excel help propel a developing nation into space exploration, competing with the big boys at least in the importance of research questions tackled.


Category: space exploration, instruments,

Tags: science payload, planetary missions, Insight, MAVEN, Mars geology, methane, seismic activity, magnetic fields,




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