The Martian Timeshare

Nature gives us a new context for exploring Mars, with NASA landing a rugged rover or orbital observer equipped with “generic” scientific equipment so that lots of people can book time for Martian research:

The proposed change is spurred by NASA’s waning influence at Mars. The agency’s long-running string of spacecraft is winding to a close, and international and commercial interests are on the rise. By the middle of the next decade, European, Chinese, Emirati and SpaceX missions are as likely to be at Mars as NASA is.

Throughout the 2000s, NASA sent a sustained barrage of spacecraft to Mars, unique in the sheer number of robots directed at one planetary target. But many have expired, and the ones still operating are growing old. NASA’s three functional orbiters — Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN — launched in 2001, 2005, and 2013 respectively. The Opportunity rover is in its thirteenth year, and the Curiosity rover is in its fifth.

Many non-NASA missions to Mars are already on the books. In 2020, the European Space Agency and China each plan to launch Mars rovers, while the United Arab Emirates will send an orbiter. SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, hopes to start sending its Red Dragon landers to Mars beginning in 2018.

This broadening context prompted Watzin to propose the new way of operating Mars missions. “I’m not trying to fix something that’s broken,” he said. “I’m trying to open the door to a larger level of collaboration and participation than we have today, looking to the fact that we’re going to have a larger pool of stakeholders involved in our missions.”

Under the new, facility-based approach, scientists would propose investigations using one or more instruments on a future spacecraft — likely an orbiter. NASA would award observing time to specific proposals, much as telescope allocation committees parcel out time on their mountaintops.