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The exciting future of Mars exploration: In orbit, on the surface and inside the planet

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Saturday, August 9, 2014, 11:30 AM - If all goes as planned, we have roughly a decade before there'll be humans walking around on the surface of Mars. Private space agencies like Mars One and SpaceX might have the best chances of pulling off a mission on that timeline, but NASA, Roscosmos, the ESA and the world's other government space agencies will not be idle in the mean time.

Even as you read this article, two spacecraft from Earth are on approach to Mars orbit. One, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and is scheduled to arrive at its destination on September 24. It will then spend months circling the planet, primarily acting as a 'proof of concept' for the space agency, but it will also investigate the planet's atmosphere and geology. However, just ahead of that arrival date, NASA's newest mission - MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission - will be pulling into orbit on September 21. This satellite is designed to orbit around Mars, dipping down into the planet's upper atmosphere, to sample the gases there, and investigate how the atmosphere was lost over time.

However, roughly a month after these two spacecraft arrive, they're going to have a fairly unusual visitor that will have them ducking for cover, but will also represent an absolutely amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - the encounter between Mars and Comet Siding Spring.

Opportunity and Curiosity will be continuing their explorations over the next few years, as the only missions on the planet's surface, but that will change in 2016. That's the year when NASA's InSight mission arrives, landing near Mars' equator to drill down into the ground to investigate the planet's interior. This will be followed by the first part of the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars mission, which will put an orbiter around the planet and a lander down on the surface, to examine the atmosphere and the planet's electric fields, all in preparation for a 2018 followup mission.

There are a few more missions planned for the years after that, including another ISRO orbiter and possibly some sample-return missions, but we've already had a little preview over the past week of NASA's next big thing. The Mars 2020 rover, a near-twin of Curiosity, will launch in 2020 and likely have wheels on the Martian surface either that same year or early 2021. The focus of this rover would be to build upon the findings of the other robotic missions, and actually look for the specific evidence of past life.

All of the science conducted by these missions will not only help us understand what happened to Mars over time, to turn it from a much more hospitable environment into the barren wasteland it is now, but it will also reveal clues about the past of our own world. Additionally, the discoveries will provide us with more of what we need to plan successful human missions to the planet, to establish permanent settlements there. It promises to be an exciting decade to come.

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