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Mars begs human exploration

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Discovery has 'profound implications,' says NASA chief

By By Tariq Malik

The discovery that a salty sea once covered party of the surface of Mars will have lasting effects on the future exploration of the Red Planet, according to scientists and policy experts inside and outside NASA.

Space agency officials said the briney find by the Opportunity rover has singled out its Meridiani Planum landing site for future robotic exploration and given a timely boost to President George W. Bush's recently state vision of eventually sending humans to take a more personal look around.

During a Tuesday announcement of the finding, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the ancient sea has "profound implications" for future investigations in which the space agency plans to send "more sophisticated robotic capabilities" to Mars.

"And it's in due course that human explorers will follow," O'Keefe said.

No easy path

The giant step is still years away, with many political hurdles to cross.

"My sense is that this is going to bolster the space vision plan, but how it plays out in dollars and cents is still up in the air," said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, of sending people to the Red Planet. "From a policy perspective, though, this couldn't have come at a better time."

The water announcement was delivered in the same week as a meeting of the Commission on the Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, which begins today in Atlanta, Georgia.

Appointed by Bush, the commission is tasked with recommending actions that will help NASA meet the President's space vision to return humans to the Moon, then eventually send people to Mars and beyond, while at the same time closing out the space shuttle program.

"It strengthens the case for Mars as one of the main targets for the space vision," said committee member Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, of Opportunity's finding. "I'm not even worried about Mars right now."

The strong case NASA scientists have built for water in Mars' past using rover data, starting first with evidence of groundwater then moving on to a shallow salty sea, is a microcosmic version of the track the entire space vision must follow, Tyson told It was incremental steps, he added, that made the Apollo mission to put humans on the moon such a success. And as a successor to the successful 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, the current Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission has already emulated that pattern.

But it must be followed up with human missions in the same way.

"So to go to the Moon, it's not just to hop around, it's to test certain capabilities that can then be used for Mars, " Tyson said. "And Mars is just a destination, it's a step among many steps in the vision."

Tyson also said that the way NASA has kept the Mars water case in the public eye through science and press briefings could, if duplicated in future missions, protect the larger space vision from succumbing to the whim of partisan politics over time by periodically focusing the effort on results.

NASA officials and scientists yesterday repeatedly stressed that additional missions, each more ambitious than the previous, will be needed to continue telling the story of Mars' watery past and to find out if life ever existed there.

Leading toward future missions

O'Keefe said Opportunity's discovery would contribute to the planned constant reshaping of the Bush vision, which is based on making exploration decisions that evolve as science and technology progress.

"It certainly would have an impact," he said, adding that now there will be "all kinds of ideas" about objectives for the next mission that couldn't be imagined a few months ago....

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No doubt about it, we need to get some people to Mars! grin2.gif

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