Steve Squyres of Cornell University and the project scientist of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity spoke today at an astrobiology symposium in Arlington, Virginia. He described several spectacular planetary missions that might be flown in the coming decade. All are being considered. None have yet been chosen or funded.
- A mission to grab a sample from a comet and return it to Earth.
- A mission to put a rover or lander on one of the poles of Mars to study the frozen layers of water under the icecap.
- Mars sample return mission. This mission is so difficult and expensive that it probably would be broken down into three parts:
- Two rovers on the surface to gather and cache sample material.
- A lander/rover mission to grab the samples and bring them up to Mars orbit. “Putting into orbit a precious cargo the size of a coconut,” Squyres said.
- A mission to grab the sample cargo in Martian orbit and return it to Earth.
- An orbiter to study both Jupiter and its moon Europa.
- An orbiter to Enceladus, the moon of Saturn, to study the water and organic chemistry in its mysterious plumes.
- An orbiter to Titan, with balloon to probe the atmosphere as well as a “lake lander, a boat” to study Titan’s lakes.
- A variety of landers and rovers to go to Venus. One of the more astonishing mission concepts would land, then take off again to visit different places on the surface.
Squyres is the co-chair of a committee of the National Science Foundation that is right now putting together a decadal survey for outlining unmanned planetary research for the next decade. This survey is expected to be released in March, which is when we will find out which of the above missions the planetary science community prefers.