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NASA honing plans for its Mars Ice Mapper mission

Upper layers of frozen carbon dioxide have melted to show layers of frozen water ice at the South Pole of Mars in this image taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Upper layers of frozen carbon dioxide have melted to show layers of frozen water ice at the South Pole of Mars in this image taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

When President Donald Trump's administration submitted its NASA budget request for this fiscal year in February, the documents contained a surprise for planetary scientists: the announcement of a new mission dubbed Mars Ice Mapper.

But budget request documents aren't brimming with mission details and NASA has kept quiet about the new project, so understanding the story of Mars Ice Mapper has been difficult. Details remain scarce, but NASA officials offered a little more insight into the mission's origins and goals during a meeting held last month, calling Mars Ice Mapper an attempt to take advantage of a specific and unexpected opportunity with implications for a host of NASA priorities.

"Mars Ice Mapper originates from the NASA agency-level objectives," Lori Glaze, director of the agency's Planetary Science Division, said during a meeting of NASA's Planetary Science Advisory Committee held virtually on Nov. 30. "Exploring Mars ice reserves emerged as a focusing requirement and thus a need, not only for the scientific value, but also in preparation for human exploration."

Photos: The search for water on Mars

And NASA got lucky: the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) revealed that it was interested in providing a synthetic aperture radar instrument to a Mars orbiter. This technology uses a moving antenna and complex geometry to create detailed maps showing geologic activity and environmental changes, among other characteristics.

Such an instrument would not be the first radar capability orbiting the Red Planet: Both the European Mars Express spacecraft and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter carry shallow radar instruments. And Venus in particular has been the target of synthetic aperture radar instruments before, because its thick atmosphere makes studying the surface from a distance difficult.

"NASA is currently working to establish the framework for enabling international, potential commercial partnerships for the implementation of the Mars Ice Mapper as part of the agency's plan," Glaze said. "We had to get those identified in order to understand what the mission architecture actually looks like."

Glaze's deputy director, Eric Ianson, spoke in more detail about the mission during the same presentation, noting that in addition to the CSA, international partners in the Mars Ice Mapper conversation include the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), and that the mission could target a launch as early as 2026.

That timeline is vital to the agency's priorities, Ianson said. "Finding accessible ground ice is a critical in situ resource for exploration, and it will really help inform where the best places to land on Mars are," he said. "If we're planning for human exploration in the mid-2030s, we need to start getting information as early as the mid-2020s on where we should be planning these future missions."

NASA's next Mars mission, the rover dubbed Perseverance, will land on the Red Planet in February, but the agency's subsequent foray is still somewhat unsettled. NASA and its European counterpart are planning to launch a multispacecraft campaign to fetch samples cached by Perseverance later in the 2020s, but that effort will by necessity follow its predecessor. And beyond the sample-return work, NASA's agenda for Mars had, before Ice Mapper, been unknown.

If Mars Ice Mapper does indeed begin studying the Red Planet later this decade, the mission would fill that gap while offering both scientists and would-be Mars visitors valuable information. "There have been lots of studies that have identified near-surface ice — that is, the top 10 meters [33 feet] — as critical both for science as well as preparing for human exploration," Ianson said. "It can tell us a lot about astrobiology, geologic and climate history and modern processes."

In addition to the ice-mapping satellite itself, the mission could prompt the deployment of new communications satellites built by commercial companies to Mars orbit. These companions would not be required for the Mars Ice Mapper itself to succeed but would address the general shortage of communications support for Mars missions, Ianson added, and is a project that the agency believes would interest commercial partners.

"The basic concept is that there's a synthetic aperture radar reconnaissance spacecraft that will fly in a low Mars polar orbit, but there's also planning potentially for a constellation of linked comm-relay satellites around Mars, operating in a high-altitude equatorial orbit," Ianson said. "This would be an opportunity to really provide great relay assets not just for Ice Mapper but also for other resources that are currently at Mars."

Glaze and Ianson didn't delve into the Mars communications issue in more detail, but it's an area where resources are already scarce — and could become still scarcer if another piece of the same budget request that unveiled Mars Ice Mapper comes to be. In the same document, the Trump administration proposed cutting off funding for the 2001 Mars Odyssey, which serves as a relay satellite for NASA's surface missions in addition to conducting its own science work.

Despite the continuing uncertainties, the mission-planning process is still moving faster than the budgeting process that first brought Mars Ice Mapper to the scene. The budget request released in February was for fiscal year 2021, which began on Oct. 1.

The two houses of Congress agreed on a final budget for the year only late yesterday (Dec. 20) and had to pass a third stop-gap "continuing resolution" to extend government funding for one final day to allow time for the bureaucratic formalities of sending the final language to Trump.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Meghan Bartels
SPACE.COM SENIOR WRITER — Meghan is a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.

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