66.4 F
Los Angeles
Monday, Jun 17, 2024

JPL Prepares for Trip to Mars

Was there life on Mars?

This is one of the questions that the Mars Sample Return mission seeks to answer. The mission is being led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by the Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology. It’s the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s only federally funded research and development center. JPL’s primary focus is robotic spacecraft production and operation and Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It has 40 active missions.

JPL, which is based in in La Cañada-Flintridge, is set to be the recipient of a substantial amount of funding from the government next year: the Biden Administration’s 2024 budget request for NASA includes a 7.1%, or $1.8 billion, increase to the civil space program. This is the largest funding increase for NASA in at least five years. The biggest impact of this funding is in California, which has three NASA centers including JPL. The other two centers are in Silicon Valley and Edwards Air Force Base. Out of NASA’s proposed total funding of $27.2 billion for fiscal-year 2024, about $949 million would go to JPL’s Mars mission, which is known as MSR.

Mission to Mars

The MSR will check off a substantial list of firsts for NASA. It will be the first rocket to launch from the surface of another planet, and the first time several vehicles will land on Mars. It’s currently set to launch in 2028, and samples will be collected by the Perseverance rover.

“It’s the first round-trip (mission) from another planet,” JPL deputy director Larry James said. “It’s the first time we will have brought samples back from another planet to do a really deep investigation and understand Mars much, much better, and it’s the largest thing we’ve ever landed on Mars.”

JPL’s Perseverance Mars rover will collect samples from the red planet.

JPL’s lead on the campaign is under the oversight of NASA, which has partnered with the European Space Agency for the mission. That partnership will mark the first international, interplanetary relay effort ever.

Richard Cook is the MSR program manager at JPL. His career at JPL started about 35 years ago and his involvement with the Mars program began with the Mars Pathfinder mission that launched in 1996. He said that the MSR is a “big step forward.”

“We’ve been working towards having an understanding of the history of Mars and whether or not it could’ve support life in the past,” Cook said. “The culmination of that is to bring samples back.”

The most novel piece will be the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which is a rocket that will launch from Mars with the samples taken.

“It’s using technology that’s flown on Earth … but it will be the first time we have ever taken one to Mars,” Cook said.

NASA’s congressional budget has increased over the last few years. Its enacted budget for fiscal year 2023 was $25.4 billion, and the requested budget for 2024 is $27.2 billion. JPL’s annual budget in 2021 was $2.4 billion.

“NASA and NASA Science, which is kind of the area we fall in, is very much supported bipartisanly,” James said. “I think that’s certainly been evidenced in the fact that our budget has gone up, and NASA’s overall budget has gone up, over the last few years.”

Resources and staffing

JPL is also looking ahead to the launch of its Psyche mission, which will “journey to a unique metal-rich asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter.” Psyche was originally set to launch in August of last year, but a series of delays led it to its current launch date of October. An independent review released in November found contributing factors to the delay included understaffing and a “lack of experienced managers.”

Former NASA official Tom Young chaired the review board, and said at the time of the review’s release that JPL had an “unprecedented workload.” The review added that the lab’s current project workload was the broadest and most demanding in its history, and that its total number of personnel was an issue.

“There is a large imbalance today between the workload and the available resources at JPL,” Young said in a November meeting. “This imbalance was clearly a root cause of the Psyche issues and, in our judgment, adversely affects all flight project activity at JPL.”

James said that the Psyche workforce is now fully staffed. Turnover rates at JPL spiked during the pandemic, but have since returned to a normal rate of about 4% a year.

“You look at just the mission that we do, which is very meaningful for the people that come and work here,” James said. “I mean, you’re making a difference not just for JPL, or NASA or the United States, but in many ways for the planet.”

He reported that JPL is fully staffed for its upcoming missions.

The proposed NASA budget would further postpone JPL’s upcoming Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (Veritas) mission. NASA previously pushed the mission, which would orbit Venus, from 2027 to “no earlier” than 2031. It originally projected spending $56.7 million on Veritas in 2024. However, the current proposal included only $1.5 million for Veritas, making further delays likely.

JPL and NASA have a significant impact on Southern California’s economic and employment landscape. NASA reported in 2022 that the lab employed about 7,000 Caltech employees and contractors, and NASA itself has supported 66,236 jobs in the state.

NASA reported in October that, in 2021, the economic impact resulting from its employment and contracts in California totaled $15.2 billion in economic output and $738.3 million in tax revenue for state and local governments.

“I think (that) the committees that fund NASA are very aware of the missions that we take on,” James said. “(It’s) climate science and Earth science, which obviously is very important to Congress and the administration, and then just expanding the frontiers of knowledge, which is a great thing for this nation to do.”

Featured Articles

Related Articles

Grace Harmon Author