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With ExoMars, will Russia break its “Mars Curse?”

In the mid-morning of March 14, 2016, a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter lifted off from the Bikonaur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppes, headed for a seven month journey to Mars. The launch marked the beginning of a long-awaited, multi-phase Mars exploration program – consisting of the satellite and lander and eventually a rover – jointly run by Europe and Russia. By ushering in a new era of European Mars exploration and rebooting Russia’s interplanetary program, the ExoMars mission can rightful be considered historic. But possibly just as significant, considering the historical context, is the opportunity Russia now has to break the “Mars curse” it’s been under for nearly half a century.

“The Mars Curse”

The past fifty years of Mars exploration have been unfavorable, unlucky even, for the Russians. Over this time, not one of the 18 total Soviet and Russian mission to Mars was a full success. Some were lost in launch failures, others stopped communicating en route, and a few managed to function around Mars for only a number of months – shorter than their expected length of operation.

97/2/4Space craft model, Mars 3 USSR/Russian Academy of Sciences side view

The Mars 3 spacecraft. Source: The Powerhouse Museum

Of the 15 missions launched to Mars between 1960 and 1973, only four – Mars 2 and 3 in 1971 and Mars 4 and 5 in 1973 – returned any useful data. Three of four landing attempts failed, and the one that successfully achieved soft-landing fell silent merely 20 seconds after touchdown. By 1973, the Soviets decided to cut their losses and turned attention to other destinations, where they found better luck. They conducted an ambitious robotic exploration of the Moon, which culminated in a return of lunar samples by Luna 24 in 1976. Meanwhile, a series of missions to Venus were highly successful, as were two probes sent to Halley’s Comet.

Still, Mars beckoned. A number of highly ambitious missions to Mars were planned in the 1980s and 90s – to the dismay of scientists whose hopes were dashed when these too failed.  Phobos 1 and 2, launched in 1988, were designed to explore the small Martian moons, deploying landers and hoppers to scout their surface. Contact was lost with Phobos 1 on the way to Mars. Phobos 2 came tantalizingly close, up to the critical lander deployment phase of its mission, before suddenly falling silent due to a computer failure.

Even amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian planners managed to scrape together resources for a mission in 1996 and worked on improvements to the Phobos probe design it would utilize. The Mars 96 spacecraft – at the time the heaviest interplanetary probe ever built – carried a lander with equipment to penetrate and study Mars’ interior. It met a fiery fate burning up on reentry after the rocket launching it failed.

In light of these setbacks, the developing economic crisis of the late 1990s, and increasing Russian involvement in the International Space Station, the Mars program was again put on hold. Following the destruction of the Mars 96 spacecraft, another 15 years would pass before the Russian space program was ready to attempt another shot at Mars. Once again, the joint Russian-Chinese Phobos-Grunt mission, prepared for launch in 2011, was just as ambitious, if not more so, than those which came before it.

A render of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Source: Space.com

A render of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Source: Space.com

The spacecraft, weighing in at 13.2-metric-tons, featured a Phobos lander, a sample return vehicle, a Chinese sub-satellite, and instruments and experiments from France, Finland, Bulgaria, and The Planetary Society. Its objective was, and remains, perhaps the most lofty in the history of Mars exploration – obtain a sample of surface soil from Phobos and return it to Earth for study.

Commentators hoped that Phobos-Grunt would mark the end of the “Mars Curse.” Mission planners recognized the stakes, acknowledging that if “any one of the critical stages [of the mission] fails, the whole mission will be compromised.” Yet faith and optimism again turned to dismay in late 2011, as Phobos-Grunt became trapped in Earth orbit due to an upper stage failure. Like Mars 96 before it, the mission ended in failure as the spacecraft burned up in its eventual reentry back through Earth’s atmosphere.

“With ExoMars, Lessons Learned?”

Whether one believes in luck or not, it is clearly agreeable that Russia’s experience with Mars has been marked by misfortune. Of course, this track record was made poor through multiple influencing factors. For many of Russia’s pre-1973 missions, failure was at least in part the result of early-stage technology and limited experience. Such was the nature of early space exploration; the United States’ record with interplanetary spacecraft during this period was not much better. The Soviets tried to “brute force” the issue by launching a large bulk of spacecraft at Mars, hoping some of them would succeed – hence the significant failure rate.

Yet from the 1970s through the 1990s, the United States saw recurring success at Mars while the Soviets continued to face technical issues flying to the planet. Still, advancements in technology and the decades of design upgrades between Phobos 1/2 and Phobos-Grunt lent some continuing confidence that further missions were possible.

The two – failed – Mars missions of Russia’s “modern” exploration program, Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt, shared two commonalities:

  • An “all-eggs-in-one-basket,” highly ambitious, expensive approach to design and planning;
  • Mission failure brought about by failures during launch/early operations.

On the first point – Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt were both expensive, high-profile, multi-part spacecraft designed as flagship missions. Years of planning, design, and construction went into each mission, as well as significant dedications of funding. A wide array of lofty science goals were contingent upon the spacecrafts’ operation, a single point of failure. The failure of one, let alone both, would’ve represented a considerable loss on investment – enough to reasonably prompt a halting and review of Russia’s Mars exploration program. And, as it turned out, both were destroyed before even leaving Earth orbit. As such, Russia has not returned to Mars in over a quarter of a century.

This approach contrasts with that taken by the United States over the past two decades, which spreads science objectives over a long-term plan by striking a balance between successive small and large-scale missions. Such an approach has served to reduce the risk associated with losing a spacecraft; while obviously a setback, NASA’s Mars exploration roadmap has not been sufficiently jeopardized in terms of funding or achieving scientific objectives when missions have failed (such as the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999).

A Russian Proton rocket fails in a 2013 launch. Source: Space.com

A Russian Proton rocket fails in a 2013 launch. Source: Space.com

As for the launch failures – Russia’s launch industry has faced a slew of launch-related issues over the past years. These issues have not been isolated to missions to Mars – multiple satellite launches have failed due to malfunctions with the rocket – though recent Mars missions have been affected. Mars 96’s fate was sealed when its Block D-2 upper stage failed during second ignition, sending the spacecraft on a trajectory back into Earth’s atmosphere instead of onward to Mars. Phobos-Grunt failed when a computer error prevented its rockets from reigniting, leaving the spacecraft stranded in orbit.

Regardless of the point of failure in launch, be it initial ascent or in the upper stage, the issues seen in Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt, as well as a slew of other failed launches, point to systemic problems in the Russian space industry. The post-launch investigation report for Phobos-Grunt pointed to cheap parts, poor quality control, insufficient testing, and corruption as root causes of the failure. As much as issues with technology have held back Russia’s exploration program, so too have issues with the culture in the industry and bureaucracy.

With ExoMars, however, Russia appears to be taking steps to alleviate these issues. In December of 2015, President Putin dissolved Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, replacing it with the Roscosmos State Corporation – a state-run corporation that consolidates the entire Russian space industry under a single point of authority. This reform could be, depending on implementation, a first step toward resolving the issues of corruption, bureaucracy, inefficiency, and financial mismanagement which have plagued Russia’s launch services in recent years. It remains too early to tell, however, whether this reorganization will bring an end to the steady cadence of launch-associated issues and whether reform amounts to tangible changes in the status quo.

A more marked suggestion of change is in the approach Russia is taking toward planning its missions to Mars. The ExoMars program represents a significant departure from the “eggs-in-one-basket” design characteristic of Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt. The program is split into two stages – the Trace Gas Orbiter, which just launched, and the ExoMars rover to launch sometime in 2018. The Schiaparelli lander currently attached to the Trace Gas Orbiter will test the landing techniques needed to successfully deploy the rover, and the Trace Gas Orbiter will eventually serve as a communications relay between Earth and the rover.

As such, with the slew of scientific targets and instruments spread across both vehicles, the program isn’t doomed to failure with the loss of one or the other spacecraft. Equally so, the loss of one or the other spacecraft won’t entail as significant a loss on investment as it would were the whole program integrated on a single vehicle. This staggered, evolutionary approach, reminiscent of NASA’s MER program consisting of the Pathfinder lander followed by the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers, can be considered a safer bet for a Russia burdened by recent spacecraft failures.

A significant element of ExoMars is its nature as a joint Russian-European project. While both are major partners, the European Space Agency has paid-in the most to foot the mission’s cost. In return, Russia has agreed to provide services that fall outside the European Space Agency’s expertise. Per the agreement set out with the European Space Agency, Russia’s involvement in the ExoMars program will entail:

  • Providing launches for both missions using the heavy-lift Proton rocket;
  • Providing an entry-descent-landing (EDL) spacecraft to carry the ExoMars rover down to the Martian surface;
  • Having space allocated for two scientific instruments on the Trace Gas Orbiter;
  • Having joint intellectual property rights over the scientific information returned by the missions.

This set of responsibilities comes with both risk and benefit for the mission. Of interesting note is Russia’s primary responsibility as launch and EDL provider – two direct areas where its recent track-record is poor and where responsibility for failure falls squarely on them. Yet this arraignment takes into account Russia’s overall competitive advantage with these technologies –  the Proton rocket is substantially more powerful than European equivalents (indeed, past European missions to Mars have purchased rides on Russian or Russian-derived rockets) and Russia has a long, successful history with EDL on the Moon and Venus. In the end, it is a more financially and operationally sound decision to have Russia provide these services than for Europe to develop the technologies and practices itself.

ESA Exomars robot

A design of the ExoMars rover. Source: SpaceNews

Russia can find benefit in the split responsibilities. While it has the right to provide scientific instruments for experiments and has right over the total scientific data gathered during the course of the program, the country is otherwise contributing little to the actual spacecraft involved in the missions. The Trace Gas Orbiter, the Schiaparelli lander, and the ExoMars Rover are all European designed and built vehicles.

To that end, Russia need not take bets with its self-described “inefficient and corrupt” space sector – to which the finger was pointed after the failure of the past two Mars missions – and can instead rely on European contractors, technologies, and standards to achieve mission success. At the same time, Russia can absolve itself – and insulate its exploration program from the resulting repercussions of – responsibility for spacecraft failure during the operational portion of the flight. Similarly, the European Space Agency is responsible for the spacecrafts’ tracking, maintenance, and communications, again absolving Russia of direct responsibility over these crucial, and challenging, elements of the flight.

“The ‘Curse’ may be Broken. What now?”

The launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter went smoothly, though some sources reported a near-disaster when the spacecraft’s upper stage booster exploded after separation, and the ExoMars mission is on its way to the planet. So far, it seems, so good, and the mission has now progressed further than Russia’s last two. Still, Russia’s “Mars curse” may not be broken just yet – the Trace Gas Orbiter still needs to complete its mission, and Russia will need to perform to expectations with the ExoMars rover, where the country’s operational responsibilities are more significant. Nonetheless, hopes are rightfully high that all will go as planned.

Should the ExoMars missions succeed, the arraignment between Russia and the European Space Agency for joint-responsibility could come to represent a paradigm shift in how Russia interweaves international cooperation into its exploration strategy and uses it as a means to success. While Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt carried instruments from other nations, including a substantial Chinese satellite, Russia remained the major partner and held responsibility for most, if not all, portions of the missions. With ExoMars, the European Space Agency and Russia are both major – if not entirely equal in terms of mission funding – partners, each drawing full benefit from the scientific and exploration data derived from the mission. In effect, Russia will have found its first interplanetary success in over two decades by partnering and sharing responsibility with other space programs in lieu of ‘going it alone.’

This could lead Russian policymakers and mission planners to one of two conclusions – Russia’s space sector has demonstrated enough success with its portions of ExoMars that the country is ready to reengage in its own exploration missions, or Russia should pursue further international cooperation and responsibility sharing when attempting an interplanetary exploration mission.

The conclusion, and resulting decisions, will depend on mid to long-term factors. The ExoMars program will not be “finished” until 2020, 6 years after the launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter. In that time, Russia’s reorganization of its space sector may have produced enough positive change to warrant another look at an indigenous Mars mission. Yet, equally possible, those changes may not manifest in 6 years time, if at all, should the reports about how rooted the corruption and bad practices are in the Russian space program be true. Because of the opaque nature of Russia’s space program, it also remains to be seen where interplanetary science fits into the country’s new space organization, if at all.

Of similar significance is Russia’s budgetary constraints. Facing an economic crisis brought about by world events, the new budget and plan allocated to the Russian space program is modest at best. According to the plan, a renewed focus will be on robotic lunar exploration, likely building off the successful designs of the Soviet lunar program, but space research – including interplanetary exploration missions – is facing a cut.

It is important to keep in consideration Russia’s new space plan covers space activities until 2025, 5 years after the tentative end of the ExoMars program. Such may not afford Russia enough time – or money – to engage in a new Mars exploration program, in which case the lessons learned by ExoMars may be moot or inconsequential in the future’s circumstances. Alternatively, this may give Russia all the more reason to seek out further international cooperation on interplanetary exploration. By partnering jointly with the European Space Program for ExoMars, many of the program’s costs were offset for Russia – a favorable way to work around the constrained budgetary environment. Equally important, Russia’s involvement in ExoMars came after the program had been initiated by the Europeans, cutting short Russia’s long-term involvement in planning and mission design. This “piggy-backing,” in which Russia’s exploration program need not dedicate needed resources to years-long planning, could serve as an effective way to participate in exploration missions within the short term.

Yet this last point poses a significant challenge to Russia, as well. ExoMars was initiated in 2009 as a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. In 2011, when the United States dropped out of the program because of constrained funding and priorities for NASA, the fate of the missions seemed threatened. This gave Russia ample opportunity to sign an agreement of cooperation with Europe where it enjoyed the benefits of a full partnership while contributing comparatively less financing, responsibilities, and planning. To that end, should Russian policymakers seek to replicate the efforts and execution of ExoMars in future programs, they may be hard pressed to find an equally favorable set of circumstances.

Nonetheless, some current opportunities may present themselves as the opening Russia needs. Both China and India are planning interplanetary exploration missions in the next five years, and both espouse long-term exploration plans within the inner Solar System. Considering that Russia has been courting stronger relations with these countries in global affairs, and that international cooperation in space exploration is seen as a positive way to build soft-power relations and mutual trust, future cooperative missions with these countries may benefit Russia’s broader geopolitical goals and could mirror ExoMars both in execution and success.

Of course, with the ExoMars program only now just flying, these decisions are still many years away. Many factors may and likely will come to play a role in Russia’s exploration strategy and approach which fall beyond the scope detailed here. Either way, this much is clear:

With ExoMars, Russia has demonstrated clear ‘lessons learned’ from its past two – failed – attempts at Mars, and could employ these lessons to favorable affect in the future despite a constrained budgetary environment and exploration plan. Though the Trace Gas Orbiter is still on its way to Mars, and the ExoMars rover has yet to launch, Russia has performed better with this interplanetary mission than it has in the past two decades. Indeed, the “Mars Curse” may well soon be broken – with Russia finding its first interplanetary success since 1988.

The Least Realistic Part of “The Martian?” China. And Why That Matters.


By now, you’ve likely seen or, at the least, heard about the critically acclaimed, space-themed blockbuster hit “The Martian.” Perhaps you have read the equally acclaimed book off of which the film is based. If neither of these apply to you, stop what you’re doing right this instant and go find it at your local bookstore or movie theater – you’re in for a real treat. “The Martian” is the latest in a series of high-budget, high-profile space films – 2013’s “Gravity,” Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic, pre-Apollo-era “2001: A Space Odyssey” come to mind – which have served to excite the general public about space exploration, demonstrating through gripping plots and incredible imagery the many challenges, dangers, and triumphs that space travel entails. Dealing in themes resonant with both the human condition and our civilization’s technological capabilities – and technological failures – “The Martian” embodies the notion and interplay of “man and machine” which has driven the United States through the Space Age. Its no small wonder that NASA has used the film as a centerpiece in its publicity efforts for an eventual real-life mission to Mars.

"The Martian" - one of the most realistic space movies ever made, for the most part.

“The Martian” – one of the most realistic space movies ever made… for the most part. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Above all other selling points, “The Martian” has been touted as being one of the most technically and scientifically realistic space movies ever released, perhaps even the most. The book’s author, Andy Weir, spent years doing research into the intricacies of a human Mars mission, along with details on orbital mechanics, biology, and NASA technology, prior to beginning his writing. Yet the effort to make “The Martian” a scientifically accurate story extended beyond simple research. In order to make the film as close to real-life as possible, the film team partnered with NASA, which provided significant consulting during the movie’s filming. The United States’ space agency answered hundreds of questions – on a weekly basis – on everything from radioisotope systems to the look of potential Mars habitations. NASA also sent hundreds of Mars images and images of its facilities to the film team, to help them design the most realistic sets possible. This marked what is probably the closest collaboration between NASA and Hollywood in history, and the effort definitely paid off – most, if not all, of the film’s few inaccuracies involve elements key in the development of the plot; that is, most of what’s unrealistic about “The Martian” is so because the story needed it to be. Even then, unless you’re a rocket engineer or a planetary scientist, most of these inaccuracies probably passed by unnoticed.

Yet there’s one glaring inaccuracy in “The Martian” that I, being a bit of a space policy buff, couldn’t help but notice; and while admittedly a crucial part of the plot, which the movie couldn’t do without, there are alternatives which could’ve been substituted in its place so as to make the movie more realistic. That said, I think the presence of this inaccuracy is a great thing, for a number of reasons. I’m talking about the subplot involving China’s space agency, the CNSA.

The CNSA (China's space agency) logo. Source: Spacenews

The CNSA (China’s space agency) logo. Source: Spacenews

The premise of China’s involvement in “The Martian” is, without giving away too many spoilers, simple enough. A NASA rocket carrying critical supplies to an astronaut stranded on Mars explodes during launch because of rushed preparations. In the panic which follows, there’s a miraculous turn of events – the Chinese announce that, unbeknownst to anyone, the CNSA has a secret rocket booster capable of making the journey to Mars which is already prepped and ready to go. NASA jumps on the offer, lest a stranded American astronaut die of starvation some 249 million miles from home, and the Chinese send their rocket, laden with supplies, skyward. Toward the movie’s end, the CNSA’s leadership is seen standing next to NASA’s administration, celebrating a positive conclusion to the harrowing series of events. In the book, the Chinese are rewarded with a seat on the next Mars mission for the help they provided NASA. It seems to be a watershed moment in international space relations, a testament to the benefits and goodwill that cooperation in outer space can bring.

And, in real life, it would never happen. That’s because, according to present day policy, it just can’t happen.

Space Cooperation with China? Read the Rules.

One could write a doctoral thesis on the myriad reasons why the cooperation seen between the United States and China in ‘The Martian” would never play out in real life. Arguments of geopolitics, foreign policy, military superiority and secrecy, and sensitive technologies abound when people discuss the factors behind a preclusion to Sino-American cooperation in space. Yet there’s a far simpler and far more definitive answer to why NASA would never accept a Chinese offer for an emergency resupply mission: the United States’ space agency is explicity prohibited, by law, from cooperating in any form or fashion with the Chinese.

In April 2011, the 112th Congress of the United States of America passed Public Law 112-55, SEC. 539. Written into this law was language which stated the following:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.”

A Chinese "Long March 9" rocket. Don't expect to see it launching anything involving the United States. Source: CSNA

A Chinese “Long March 9” rocket. Don’t expect to see it launching anything involving the United States. Source: CNSA

This is, in effect, a blanket ban on any cooperation between the United States’ space program and China. So, while other space-fearing nations such as the UK and Russia are working jointly with China on a number of potential future missions, NASA is banning Chinese scientists from astronomy conferences. China’s calls for international cooperation on a future space station get no response from NASA. So to think that NASA would gladly accept any Chinese offer to cooperate in space, even to help rescue a stranded astronaut, is, to say the least, unrealistic. For doing so would force the Federal Agency to break Federal law.

And, unlike the renegade astronauts in the film who refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer (and to whom this point also applies), I highly doubt that NASA would choose to just “do it anyway.”

So Why Choose China?

So “The Martian,” in both print and film version, represents a dedicated effort to make the most realistic and accurate space story ever created. It was written, filmed, and produced in close collaboration with NASA, which provided the production team much guidance and information on all things space. Then why is China – perhaps the most unrealistic option out there – the country that was chosen to swoop in and save NASA in its time of need? After all, there are far more realistic options out there that could reasonably substitute in China’s place – Russia, for example, which is noticeably absent throughout the film. The Russians have a history of cooperation with the United States in space, both in a limited fashion during the Soviet era and to a significant extent in recent times with the International Space Station. They have a number of rockets capable of launching a payload to Mars. Even if the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has had to deal with a number of high-profile failures and institutional issues in recent years, at least it isn’t against the law to work with them.

The answer, I suspect, lay in marketing motivations and what I’ve termed the “congressional movie-goer.”

"The Martian" - bound to be a big hit in China. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

“The Martian” – bound to be a big hit in China. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

As for the marketing: China is expected to be the film’s largest income source overseas. Something tells me that Chinese moviegoers would be more than happy to flock to a film which paints them in an entirely benign and glamorous light – in the print version of “The Martian,” but not the film, at least some of China’s space leadership have reservations about helping the Americans, citing geopolitical and military concerns – in order to see the Chinese space program rescue the Americans. The Chinese space program, as some scholars have noted, is a source of significant pride for many of China’s citizens. Playing off that pride by having China serve as a rather faultless protagonist in the film is therefore quite a brilliant business decision by Twentieth Century Fox. We’ll need to wait until October 22nd, when the film opens in Chinese theaters, to see whether this really was a motivation behind China’s presence in the film, and whether it indeed payed off.

Yet the greater significance to China’s role in “The Martian” is, I believe, that it serves as a subtle yet targeted lobbying move aimed at the “congressional movie-goer;” that is, aimed at members of the policy-making world who go watch the film. The film is an attempt to make space cooperation with the Chinese appear more benign and appealing; it is an example of the hypothetical good that could come out of working with China. The hope is, I would suspect, that members of Congress or their staff who go watch the film will leave wondering if the cooperation ban written into law is really so rational after all, and whether something should be done to make it at least a little less stringent. So that, perhaps, China actually could help NASA if the time or need ever came.

"The Martian" - bound to change Congressional policy?

“The Martian” – bound to change Congressional policy? Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

The motivation behind this is rather clear: NASA does not like being barred from cooperating with China. The United States’ space agency has made that much clear time and time again. NASA scientists have boycotted past conferences in protest against the ban. The agency has broached the issue of cooperation with the Chinese to the White House on at least a number of occasions. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has written blog posts that implicitly hint at the need for future cooperation with China in space activities. Bolden went as far as to say that the ban on Sino-American cooperation in space was “temporary” during the recent International Astronautical Conference – about as thinly veiled a statement of hope that a U.S. government employee required to represent American policy during international events can make, given the circumstances.

Yet, as space policy expert John Logsdon pointed out to space.com, getting the United States to work with China in space will require a long policy battle, one that extends beyond NASA’s ability to influence events. He writes: “The first step is the White House working with congressional leadership to get current, unwise restrictions on such cooperation revoked.” Changes to the United States’ Federal law will require Congressional action and leadership, and the views of Congress, if the current ban says anything, do not always correspond with the views of NASA or the space community. If NASA hasn’t been able to convince Congress to change policy through its lobbying efforts alone, then perhaps some blockbuster magic – brought into fruition through, in part, NASA’s support and suggestions – might just do the trick. After all, NASA has played “The Martian” up in its publicity (and lobbying) efforts to win support for an eventual Mars mission. Its not too unbelievable to suspect that its doing the same when it comes to cooperation with the Chinese.

Why it all Matters.

Cooperation with China in the realm of space will be crucial for the United States if it hopes to maintain its leadership as the world’s eminent space power in the 21st century. There are some who disagree, citing geopolitical reasons, military rationales, or economic/technological concerns. They raise valid and understandable points, and any arguments to the contrary should not serve to underscore the importance of preserving American security and superiority against foreign rivals, especially those rapidly rising on the international stage. Yet the fact remains: the Chinese space program, along with China proper, is rapidly developing in capabilities and ambition, while the United States’ space program faces a period of stagnation brought on by low budgets and inconsistent goals. Mr. Bolden is correct in his blog posts: if the United States hopes to accomplish a Mars mission in the coming decades, or any other mission of major scale and scope for that matter, it will require the help and cooperation of the international community, including the world’s third most developed space program – China’s. There is a significant contradiction in the United States continuing to refuse to work with China on any matters related to space, even if they are for a purely civil, exploratory purpose, while also declaring itself the world’s leading space-fearing power. Meanwhile, other space players, such as Russia and the European Space Agency, with whom the United States will gladly work, are looking toward China for possible joint missions in the future. The United States is ceding its place as a true space leader, as the country capable of coordinating and overseeing an international effort in space akin to its role on the International Space Station, because it is refusing to cooperate with one of the most significant players at the table.

There are also the arguments to be made about the general “nature” of space as it pertains to international relations. Space is one of the few, if not the only, realms where rivals and competitors can come together and work in joint cooperation toward a peaceful goal. Humanity’s activity in outer space represents a shared spirit, that of reaching for what lays beyond and of exploring the unknown. This is a motivation which transcends ideology or nation. The impetus for exploration on the part of Chinese scientists and mission planners is the same for NASA’s. Cooperation in space is symbolic of the broader humanity, and the more fundamental pioneering spirit, that exists in all of us, regardless of our country of origin or economic system of choice. At the least, NASA should be enabled to cooperate with China on matters of exploration, so as to unlock the greater potential of that spirit which as of today is being kept in. The effects of a “handshake in space” have far reaching consequences, after all.

The "Apollo-Soyuz Handshake," a key moment in U.S.-Soviet space relations.

The “Apollo-Soyuz Handshake,” a key moment in U.S.-Soviet space relations. Source: NASA

The 1975 “Apollo-Soyuz” mission, the first joint United States-Soviet mission in space, was marked by a handshake between astronaut and cosmonaut in orbit. More than a simple rendezvous maneuver, it was symbolic of the broader detente that was occurring between the two Cold War adversaries at the time. Sharing mission information and precious spacecraft technology with the Soviets – the same fears which today are keeping NASA engineers from working with their Chinese counterparts – entailed vulnerability on both countries’ parts. Sharing technology could lead to the recognition of key weaknesses or shortcomings; it could give the opponent the upper hand. Those very vulnerabilities, if seen in another light, were the underpinnings of a more peaceful world in the making – they represented trust. It is hard, in this current geopolitical environment and this present day, to “trust” the Chinese in many aspects. They are the United States’ quickly emerging rival in the Asia-Pacific; they are a developing military competitor; they are a significant source of foreign espionage and theft. Yet these are the messy realities of our international system, and are perhaps unavoidable. There are areas abound where differences can and will divide the United States and China, where our two countries will have disagreements, perhaps even tensions. We are headed, with policies that preclude cooperation and mutual support, toward another chilly “Cold War.” Yet space, as the Apollo-Soyuz “handshake” demonstrated powerfully in 1975, offers the opportunity to set aside our Earthly differences for a bigger and more timeless goal – that of exploration, that of discovery. And, to a degree and in its own way, cooperation in space, the building of trust in space, trickles down into Earthly affairs as well.

With this in mind, perhaps the presence of the Chinese in “The Martian” – as faultless protagonists, no less – is one of the movie’s stronger aspects, despite its glaring inaccuracy. For, perhaps its important that we recognize that cooperation is always stronger than confrontation and containment and strike the ban in place on working in space with our future Asian rival. After all, we may one day have a Martian who will owe them his life.

Why Water on Mars Poses Problems for NASA

On September 28th, 2015, in what could rightfully be considered one of the most significant announcements in the history of space exploration, planetary scientists studying Mars revealed a spectacular discovery – liquid water is, most likely, currently flowing on the surface of our solar system’s dry and rusty 4th planet. While astronomers and scientists widely suspected that liquid water had existed on the planet’s surface at some point in its 4 billion year history, as made evident by in-situ and in-orbit experiments and analysis carried out by a panoply of spacecraft, landers, and rovers, the present day status of that water was an uncertainty. Orbital and surface observations of Mars revealed a landscape rich in the types of surface topography and chemical composition that correspond to the presence of liquid water, but no water itself. Perhaps the last of Mars’ liquid surface water had sublimated into and out of the planet’s thin atmosphere; perhaps it was left trapped in the planet’s icy polar caps or in reservoirs underneath the planet’s surface. Mars may have once been a wet planet, but is it at all a wet planet any longer?

The dark streaks seen running down these Martian hillsides are examples of "recurring slope lineae," thought to be evidence of liquid water flows.

The dark streaks seen running down these Martian hillsides are examples of “recurring slope lineae,” thought to be evidence of liquid water flows. Source: NASA

At last, this uncertainty was shattered with some confidence by a report analyzing photographs taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been studying the planet from orbit since 2006. These photographs were of peculiar Martian surface features called “recurring slope lineae,” dark streaks on the slopes of Martian hills which appear to ebb during Mars’ cooler seasons and flow during warm seasons. While these features would by appearance alone seem to hint at the presence of some flowing liquid darkening the Martian soil, the authors of this report went further with their investigation by exploring the “recurring slope lineae” using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s imaging spectrometer, an instrument that analyzes the chemical composition of the Martian surface. What they found in these downhill flows was a clue crucial in resolving their nature – the presence of hydrated salts.

The relationship between hydrated salts, liquid water, and seasonal downhill flows is a complex yet connected one. Hydrated salts lower the freezing point of Martian liquid water, similar to how salts on Earth cause ice and snow to melt more rapidly. The specific composition of the hydrated minerals found by the imaging spectrometer, known as perchlorates, have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit. During Mars’ warmer months, the freezing point would be low enough to allow shallow subsurface water to wick to the surface and darken and muddy the Martian soil as it is dragged downhill. Taken together, the dark streaking effect of the “recurring slope lineae” and the presence of hydrated salts around them is the most significant evidence yet of liquid water on the surface of today’s Mars.

Obviously, this announcement has left many in the space community excited, in particular the astrobiologists and scientists studying the possibility that Mars had, or has, life. As anyone who’s taken a high school biology course would know, water is a crucial ingredient in the conditions we understand to be conducive to the formation and sustenance of life. Indeed, life as we know it wouldn’t exist without the presence of water, and our search for extraterrestrial life is accordingly narrowed on the places where conditions are suitable for liquid water. Mars, with its wet past, is a prime candidate for potential life beyond the Earth – hence the unparalleled attention and effort given to exploring and studying the planet. The discovery of flowing liquid water on the planet’s surface thus offers a tantalizing opportunity to learn more about Mars’ wet past and present conditions, and perhaps even provides the chance of finding the signs and evidence of life. Even if the water producing the “recurring slope lineae” is inundated with salts, and thereby chemically unsuitable for life, studying it will offer clues about its as-of-yet unknown source. Figuring out where the water comes from, whether it be from ice melting underground, underground liquid reservoirs, or some other potential source, will be a key first step in determining the characteristics and composition of Mars’ present-day water and whether it may indeed be conducive for life.

"Recurring slope lineae" on Mars. Source: NASA

“Recurring slope lineae” on Mars. Source: NASA

To that end, the opportunities for future study seem limitless. NASA’s Curiosity Rover, currently operating on Mars and studying the planet for signs of habitability, is within driving distance of a mountain called Mount Sharp, which might contain these “recurring slope lineae.” The Mars 2020 Rover, scheduled to arrive at the planet early in the next decade, will be equipped with sensitive instruments that could analyze these spots with far greater detail than the orbiting satellites today, and indeed could even detect the bio-signatures of life past or present. Future human expeditions to the planet could conduct investigations on the water that would far exceed any robotic mission in scale and scope. With all this, it would seem there is great incentive to explore these peculiar Martian surface features and potentially answer one of humanity’s greatest and most lingering questions – can and does life exist elsewhere?

But, not so fast. While liquid water on the surface of Mars offers the opportunity for tremendous scientific and exploratory insights, it also poses an enormous problem which will need to be dealt with – that of contamination.

Life on Earth has proven itself to be extremely resilient and adaptable to even the harshest of conditions. Indeed, some “extremophiles” have shown themselves capable of surviving the deathly conditions of interplanetary space. Some organisms on Earth have demonstrated the ability to survive in conditions similar to those on Mars, and even in the exotic extremities of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. As such, there is a sincere and credible fear among planetary scientists and mission planners, dating back to the beginning of the “Space Age,” that the exploration of these other worlds could lead to their contamination by organisms of an Earthly origin. While this may be a concern of marginal worth for “dead” worlds such as our Moon or Mercury and for extremely inhospitable planets such as Venus, it is of far more validity when it comes to a potentially habitable place such as Mars. Indeed, now that flowing liquid water has been found on Mars, water which very well may harbor or support life, these concerns are of an utmost importance. Should this water be contaminated through any in-situ study, its scientific worth toward discovering and analyzing extraterrestrial life would be tainted and therefore negligible.

Recurring slope lineae on Mars

“Recurring slope lineae” on Mars. Source: NASA

Far from just a noble goal held by scientists, the effort to prevent the contamination of other worlds, known as planetary protection, is explicitly enumerated in decades-old policy and practice. The primary piece of international law dealing with conduct and activity in outer space, known as the Outer Space Treaty, contains a section specifically dealing with planetary protection. The United States, as a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, is therefore bound to an adherence of its provisions. Article IX of the treaty states that “Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.” As is the case with most of the language in the Outer Space Treaty, which was written with a degree of ambiguity so as to not unduly constrain state activity in outer space during the active era of the “Space Race,” there exists a legal uncertainty over what “harmful contamination” entails. For NASA, this language has been interpreted as entailing the protection of scientific investigation; indeed, NASA policy explicity states that “the conduct of scientific investigations of possible extraterrestrial life forms, precursors, and remnants must not be jeopardized.” One can easily see how the study of flowing liquid water on present day Mars may jeopardize that aim.

To put these policy provisions into practice, NASA follows a set of planetary protection guidelines issued by an interdisciplinary, international committee known as the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). The COSPAR guidelines establish a set of categories, dependent on the characteristics of the world being visited and the nature of the exploration mission, which delineate what steps and practices must be taken to ensure that contamination from Earth-origin organisms does not occur. In the case of Mars exploration, which falls under Category IV of the COSPAR guidelines, contamination controls included requirements to reduce biological contamination of the spacecraft, constraints on spacecraft operating procedures, the taking of inventories of organic constituents of the spacecraft and organic samples, as well as the documentation of spacecraft operations, impact potential, and the location of landing or impact points on the planetary surface. Often, a rigorous sterilization process within a biologically-contained “clean room” is a major step in ensuring that biological contaminants are accounted for and dealt with.

NASA's Curiosity Rover being assembled in a "clean room," a biologically-controlled space designed to minimize biological contamination.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover being assembled in a “clean room,” a biologically-controlled space designed to minimize biological contamination. Source: NASA

Yet, even then, the current processes for dealing with biological contaminants are inadequate for the scope of a mission hoping to directly investigate Mars’ “recurring slope lineae.” The most advanced of NASA’s Mars rovers, the Curiosity Rover, which itself is on a mission to determine the habitability of the planet and whether life exists or existed there, fell under Category IV-B of the COSPAR guidelines; the category above it, Category IV-C, which entails even more stringent measures for preventing biological contamination, would be the baseline for any mission coming into direct contact with Martian surface water. As such, even the Curiosity Rover, if it were to find liquid water flows on or around Mount Sharp, would be prohibited from the direct study and analysis of them. To date, no spacecraft or interplanetary mission has been designed and sterilized per the COSPAR Category IV-C guidelines.

Herein lies the matter of why water on Mars poses problems for NASA’s future missions of scientific investigation. Any spacecraft sent to the “recurring slope lineae” would need to be sterilized entirely  per COSPAR Category IV-C guidelines, yet the sterilization process established by this category may be prohibitive. As mentioned by UNSW astrobiologist Malcolm Walter, the intense heat and ultraviolet radiation used to kill biological contaminants residing on space-bound rovers and landers would, if used to meet Category IV-C requirements, also destroy or severely cripple these spacecrafts’ sensitive electronics and instruments. Any human missions to Mars, aside from still being decades away, would undoubtedly carry far more contaminants and entail more significant possibilities for contamination than a robotic mission; aligning a human mission with the COSPAR guidelines has yet to be seriously attempted.

As such, while there is tantalizing evidence of liquid water currently flowing on Mars and while the insights to be gained from the direct study of this water are clearly recognizable and scientifically desirable, actually conducting such an investigation is currently prohibited – and may be for the considerable future. NASA will need to develop strategies, technologies, and procedures, or revisit and revise existing ones, which will allow spacecraft designers and mission planners to bring their hardware in line with the COSPAR Category IV-C sterilization requirements. Fortunately, significant thought and effort has been made and is being made toward that end. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive report which analyzed the potential contamination of Mars and issued recommendations to NASA which could resolve the current issues surrounding Category IV-C and future Mars exploration missions, particularly those interacting with areas on Mars where life may be present. In short, the report found that many of the existing policies and practices for preventing the contamination of Mars are outdated in light of new scientific evidence about Mars and current research on the ability of microorganisms to survive in severe conditions on Earth. It concluded that a host of research and development efforts are needed to update planetary protection requirements so as to reduce the uncertainties in preventing the contamination of Mars.

"Recurring slope lineae" on Mars. Source: NASA

“Recurring slope lineae” on Mars. Source: NASA

However, the report noted that updating planetary protection practices, so as to enable a robotic or human exploration mission to areas such as Mars’ “recurring slope lineae,” will require additional budgetary, management, and infrastructure support and will require a roadmap, including a transition plan with interim requirements, as well as a schedule. This could pose a significant challenge for the United States’ cash-strapped space agency, which may not have the money or resources to undertake such an effort. Yet, until it does, or until another approach toward resolving the issue of possibly contaminating Mars’ flowing liquid water is found, NASA will, for better or worse, need to stay away from directly interacting with this tremendous discovery.

Of course, even despite these challenges, NASA still has it within its present-day capabilities to investigate these fascinating features in further depth. Orbital observations of the “recurring slope lineae” could shed further insight on the patterns and characteristics of their flow, which would allow for a more accurate modeling of the surface water and its possible subsurface sources. If the Curiosity Rover, or any other Mars rover, found “recurring slope lineae” within its line of sight, it could take photographs and make direct observations from a distance. Up-close surface observations of these water flows would be of far more scientific value than those currently taken by spacecraft miles up in orbit. Alternatively, in a more unconventional approach, NASA could deploy hardware upon the Martian surface which would self-produce 3D-printed sterile robots that would then be sent to directly study the water. NASA is already working on such technology.

The recent announcement of liquid water found flowing on today’s Mars is of tremendous significance, and raises a number of major questions. Could this water harbor life? What does it say about the present or past state of Mars’ habitability? Perhaps most importantly, how will NASA develop the capabilities to actually investigate this discovery directly? The water is there; now its on NASA along with the scientific and technological community to develop strategies for “tasting” it. Water on Mars may pose problems for NASA today, but it need not in the future.

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