NASA May Go Mars Geyser Hopping

In showbiz, the adage has always been “leave ‘em wanting more.” So, following the brilliant opening salvos of its $2.5 billion Mars rover mission, what does NASA do for an encore?

Current budget paradigms dictate that the space agency think economically in its approach to future Mars exploration. For surface-based exploration, that means a realistic return to NASA’s Discovery-class solar system exploration missions on budgets of $450 million or less.

Thus, NASA has just announced that it has selected InSight, a new $425 million Mars surface mission for launch in 2016. Building on the space agency’s Mars Phoenix Lander spacecraft technology, InSight will study the Red Planet’s deep interior for clues to how its planetary structure actually evolved. It should also determine whether Mars has a liquid or solid core and why unlike earth, its crust lacks drifting tectonic plates.

But then how about some good old-fashioned geyser hopping?

Mars Geyser Hopper, a Discovery-class mission concept study that has largely gone unnoticed, is potentially a follow-on to the Phoenix Lander mission and would launch at earliest in 2018.

The spacecraft would represent the first attempt to land at Mars’ geographic South Pole and would offer the promise of some spectacular high-quality live-action video of carbon dioxide geysers spewing forth at the beginning of early spring. That’s when the sun is still only a few degrees above the horizon and temperatures are typically 150 degrees below zero Celsius.

Using automated detection equipment, the hopper would pick up the first signs of an erupting geyser which, in turn, would trigger high-speed particle motion detectors and high-resolution imagery. There would also be detailed chemical analysis of geyser fallout once it hit the Martian surface.

It wouldn’t be the first time NASA has played the hopping game; in 1967, the space agency’s Surveyor VI spacecraft made an eight-ft. repositioning hop after landing on the lunar surface.

But the Geyser Hopper mission would make at least two subsequent hops after landing. The first would enable the spacecraft to better study the geyser fields during southern polar summer. And the second would be to position itself to best wait out the harsh dark polar winter.

There have been hundreds of geysers seen from Mars polar orbit already. But thousands of springtime geysers are thought to potentially stretch over an area of several hundred kilometers; crowding the polar landscape at a density of roughly one geyser for every 2 kilometers.

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