Mars on the cheap: Scientists working to revolutionize access to the Red Planet

Artist’s illustration of the two EscaPADE spacecraft in orbit around Mars. (Image credit: Rocket Lab/UC Berkeley)

While officials at NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as planners in China, plot out ultra-expensive and complicated missions to return samples from Mars, there are an increasing number of researchers blueprinting low-cost and novel ways to further explore the Red Planet. 

Be it via souped-up helicopters or inexpensive landers and orbiters, they say it’s time to script new ways to gather more data from a variety of places on that remote world. 

How to use relatively low-priced craft for a next round of investigation is backed by Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“Mars, like Earth, is diverse. Different locales capture different environmental snapshots,” Ehlmann told There’s plenty of exploration to do, she added, citing the possibility of visiting amazing and exotic sites that spacecraft have imaged from orbit, such as the Valles Marineris canyon system and the Martian polar caps. 

“A system as complicated as Mars requires breadth as well as depth,” Ehlmann said, “and that means finding new ways to explore at multiple locations by lowering the price per spacecraft mission through technology or new programmatic paradigms and collaborations. Imagine half a dozen mobile Mars explorers, operated by universities around the country … That would get students energized about careers in science and engineering!”

The Small High Impact Energy Landing Device (SHIELD) concept is part lander and part shock absorber, all rolled up in one package.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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