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JPL makes pitch for new Mars project

The Geophysical Monitoring Station would explore the Red Planet's interior.

May 09, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com

A JPL scientist’s pitch for a new Mars lander that would perform unprecedented study of the Red Planet’s interior is one of three ideas in the running for future NASA funding through the agency’s competitive Discovery Program.

The proposed Geophysical Monitoring Station (GEMS) would pack a scientific payload that includes a thermal probe, seismometer and orbital tracking system. All are tools for discovering the inner composition of Mars to help explain the largely unknown story of that planet’s beginnings — and to some degree, Earth’s — explained JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, who would lead the project.

“GEMS would provide unique and critical information about the same [types of] processes that likely operated during the first few hundred million years on the Earth … a period for which virtually all information has been lost due to subsequent vigorous activity,” wrote Banerdt in an email interview last weekend. “On Mars, this information appears to have been preserved due to its lower level of activity for the past few billion years, allowing us a virtual window into our own past.”

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GEMS and two proposals from other NASA facilities were selected by space agency leaders last week from among 28 submissions for consideration of a 2016 launch date. Each team will receive $3 million for preliminary design studies, and whichever is selected would receive a budget of up to $425 million.

Somewhat entrepreneurial in nature, NASA’s Discovery Program compliments the agency’s primary space missions by allowing scientists to design and pitch smaller planetary science initiatives that use fewer resources than mainstream NASA projects.

JPL has often scored big through this bottom-up mission-planning approach, making headlines with past Discovery missions that included the 2005 comet-colliding Deep Impact probe, the Keppler telescope launched in 2009, and the July 1997 Mars lander Pathfinder. In September, the JPL-managed twin GRAIL spacecrafts will launch to the moon to study its internal makeup.

Because Discovery Program projects also involve collaborations with academic institutions and private firms, it remains unclear how much approval of the GEMS project could expand the JPL workforce, which shrank by some 250 jobs early this year due to budget-driven delays in other NASA-funded projects.

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