Magazine article Science News

French Involvement May Boost Mars Studies

Magazine article Science News

French Involvement May Boost Mars Studies

Article excerpt

The trouble with designing a planetary mission several years in advance is that the spacecraft may not have the capability to follow up on brand-new discoveries. For instance, NASA has no plans--or money--to drill into Mars' northern lowlands, which recent evidence suggests may have been sculpted by an ancient ocean.

A proposed collaboration between the French space agency and NASA could change that.

In a plan now under negotiation, the French would spend some $400 million on Mars exploration, nearly doubling the U.S. budget for obtaining samples over the next decade and providing a number of new, small missions for studying the Red Planet.

The French space agency would fund several launches of the recently developed Ariane-5 rocket and supply most of the parts for a Mars orbiter, already scheduled to carry Martian soil and rock cores back to Earth in 2008. In return, NASA would give French scientists some of the samples.

Jacques Blamont, chief adviser at the National Center of Space Studies (CNES), the French space agency in Paris, says that talks with NASA began last October and that details of a collaboration were fleshed out during a meeting in Paris in early March. The plan is now under review at NASA and at CNES, and an agreement is expected by the end of the year.

"The idea is to augment the science of the Mars program," says Blamont. "It would open up the possibility of doing something other than just sample-return [missions]."

Indeed, NASA's focus on Mars in the next decade is to bring a pound or so of the planet back to Earth. Rovers stowed on spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2001 and 2003 are to gather and store samples, and a mission set for 2005 is expected to retrieve one of the two caches. A $500 million budget cap has imposed this single-minded approach to Mars studies, notes Daniel J. …

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