Red August: A Mars Month

The month of August is named after Augustus Ceasar, the Roman Emperor who oversaw the expansion of the Roman Empire in the years after Julius Ceasar’s death on the Ides of March, and even Jesus Christ is said historically to have reminded people to render unto this particular Emperor what is his. This means that August might should stay Augustus’ month… but Mars keeps trying to leave it’s mark on this particular arc of Earth’s orbit.

In August 1975, Viking 1 launched toward Mars, marking the beginning of the Viking missions. In August 1976, Viking 2 entered orbit of Mars, marking the safe arrival of the both spacecraft. In August 1980, after 1400 orbits, the longer living Viking 1 orbiter was finally shut down.

In August 2003, we saw Mars make it’s closest approach in 60,000 years.

In August 2005, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifted off on a mission that keeps going today.

In August 2007, the Phoenix lander set off toward Mars on a mission that would find water and become a social media sweetheart.

Sure, lots and lots of Mars stuff happens in other months of the year,* but there is something special about August – especially to all the spammers who year after year try and convince us that Mars will appear as big as the full Moon (it won’t).

All joking aside, I haven’t forgotten where I was in 2003 when Mars had that particularly close opposition (on the top of the Boston Museum of Science with several 1000 others, and no where near enough telescopes), and I don’t think I’ll ever forget where I’m going to be tomorrow for the Mars Science Laboratory Landing.

Tomorrow evening, Fraser Cain, Scott Lewis, Phil Plait, myself, and many others will be joining together to host a Google Hangout on Air that will provide coverage starting at 8pm Pacific (11pm Eastern, all times here). We’re going to keep going until confirmation of life or death, or confirmation there will be a prolonged lack of information. In other words, expect us to be on air at least 4 marathon hours as we bring you background on the mission, and live commentary on events as they unfold.

Now, what I’m about to say is probably heresy, but I have to admit I’m not a big fan of Mars. Sure, it’s a pretty nifty rust colored planet, and it might support life and all that, but if I had to pick a world to go explore, it would probably be Europa (yes, I know we’re supposed to go to any world but that one), or Titan. They are less explored, have more active environs (and non debatable liquid!), and could also have life. So, yeah… not a Mars kind of girl. Normally, with a mission like this, I’d keep an eye on it, be curious, follow along, but not be all that emotionally invested. Let’s face it: Mars is a 1 in 3 chance of success, and it’s not necessarily emotionally healthy to invest in a mission that has a pretty good chance of not quite landing. (I don’t know how the mission teams manage the stress!)

And if you don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to “Stress” check out this video!

This is a terrifying landing proposal, and normally I wouldn’t invest in this missions survival until data returned home to be learned from, but …. normal pre-landing apathy doesn’t apply in this case. Even though I’m not a Mars scientist, this mission could effect my life or at least my livelihood.

For the past several years, the development and construction has consumed a major portion of NASA’s science mission budget. At this point the mission has an estimated cost of $2.5 billion, and it’s FY2013 budget is $65 million. This is fully 30% of the total Mars budget, and 5.5% of the entire planetary science budget for NASA. Crashing this amount of money into the red planet would have 3 major consequences: all the individuals who rely on the mission for funding and data would be out of funding and out of research in part or in whole (this is 100s of people in fields ranging from engineering to science to education), it would be another chance for the media to mock NASA (think of the Mars Polar Lander failure) and make people question if this is a wise way too spend tax dollars, and finally, I hate to repeat gossip but, many high-level folks are saying that a failed MSL would mean further devastating budget cuts to NASA.

Currently all my external funding** for myself and my team at SIUE comes from two sources: NASA missions and grants, and donations from individuals like you. While I love all of you dearly for all your help,  your donations are only a few to a dozen percent of my yearly budget (depending on the year). If NASA’s budgets are cut, this could have very real impact on me.

This year, when the FY2013 budget cuts came in, the NASA Education and Public Outreach supplemental funding grants and the Research Opportunity in Space and Earth Science EPOSS grant were both put on hold. This means I lost a year to try and request funding. Actually, it means I and everyone in my field lost a year. This announcement was particularly harsh for programs like APOD, which had funding that came up for renewal this year. We’re all getting pretty good at turning over ever smaller (yet harder to move) rocks to try and find funding… but when they take away your rocks… (Well, this is why I’m helping Alan Stern with Uwingu. We need more rocks, and I’m willing to start digging to find them)

If the NASA budget is cut further, it is reasonable to imagine budgets will worsen, and the programs I rely on won’t come back at past levels… and maybe the won’t come back at all.

There are a lot of good, scientific reasons to want MSL to succeed: there is so much left to learn about the chemistry and geology of this rust bucket of a world and MSL has the imaging, sampling, and processing equipment to help us increase our understanding. Heck, while it’s not entirely likely, it is possible that MSL will finally be able to say, there was life on Mars.

MSL is good science. It was worth the investment. And the reality is, if it succeeds as engineered, it will cost about the same per day of scientific return as the two Mars Exploration Rovers were originally scoped out to cost. I didn’t know the details until they were pointed on Google+ by Scott Maxwell:

When we landed, we used to figure MER cost about $4 million per sol (that is, per Martian day) — roughly, the mission had cost $800 million, and we expected about 200 sols of combined operations for the two rovers. If you blew a sol, you were wiping out roughly as much money as you’d make in your lifetime; it was one of many reasons we were very, very careful never to do that.

Coincidentally, the initial per-sol cost for MSL is around the same as MER! Figure a $2.5 billion cost for MSL and an expected Martian year (about 669 sols) of operations, and you get about $3.7 million per sol.

By the way, MER has been on the Martian surface for so long that the amortized per-sol cost is under $200,000 now, even including ongoing ops costs. For MSL to reach the same point, it will have to rove the Martian surface for something like 35 years! (And that’s assuming MSL has zero ops costs — I don’t know what MSL’s actual ops costs will be, or I’d do the math.)

Yes, MSL is expensive, but its cost per day of science return isn’t unheard of. We are going to Mars to do science, and … if it succeeds… wow.

There is even a silly reason to watch it succeed – I want to see if the superstition and hatred of calling MSL by it’s given name, Curiosity, goes away with time. This isn’t the most informative reason to want to see MSL succeed, but it is a reason.

In about 24 hours, we’ll know. Until then- Remember to breath.

Image Credit: NASA / USGS

* Other stuff includes the landings of Spirit and Opportunity in January 2004. At the time I was working at Harvard, and I remember noting it was warmer on Mars then in Boston!

** A small portion of my salary comes from SIUE, and SIUE pays my graduate students’ tuition, while I pay their salary with grants.

3 Comments

  1. John Brofka August 6, 2012 at 2:40 am #

    It’s 1:31AM, 6 Aug. Curiosity landed successfully.

    I hope NASA mocks the hell out of the news media.

    The Spirit and Opportunity missions comprise the touchstone of NASA’s thinking out of the box. Their longevity is amazing.

    Curiosity will do more, faster, and better. At least power will not be the worrisome issue of previous missions.

    I have hopes that my granddaughter will be on one of the Mars missions.

    I enjoyed tonight’s special hangout.

    Cheers,

    John Brofka

  2. Clark August 6, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    “I don’t know how the mission teams manage the stress”

    I suspect with government supplied antacid.

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  1. Curiosity Landing (Remember to Breath!) | CosmoQuest Blog - August 5, 2012

    [...] now, and we’ll see you in a few hours. PS There are also posts about MSL’s landing on my blog (StarStryder), Universe Today, Bad Astronomy,  CosmicLog, StarTalk, and many many other [...]

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