Sept. 15, 2004

LIMA, Peru – People could land on Mars in the next 20 to 30 years provided scientists can find water on the red planet, the head of NASA’s surface exploration mission said on Wednesday. Two solar-powered “robot geologists” — Mars Exploration Rovers, or MERs — have been trundling across 3 miles (5 km) of the planet and into craters since January, beaming back data about the makeup of what scientists believe is Earth’s sister planet.

Asked how long it could be before astronauts land on Mars, Arthur Thompson, mission manager for MER surface operations, told Reuters in an interview in Lima, “My best guess is 20 to 30 years, if that becomes our primary priority.”

The two MER robots, dubbed Spirit and Opportunity, have found ancient evidence that water was once plentiful — important for scientists hoping to know if there was once — or could still be — life on Mars.

Without water, the dream of sending astronauts to the often dusty planet, which has rust-colored rocks and where the sky is red and sunsets are blue, could unravel.

“If we cannot find water in situ … it really makes it difficult to send humans. Water is the key,” said Thompson, who was attending a mining engineers’ conference.

Such a mission would take 11 to 12 months to get to Mars and it would be impossible to carry enough water for the astronauts, plus the water needed to make rocket fuel for the return journey, to cool the spacecraft and to generate energy.

“We’ll find it (water). It’s there, we’ll get it,” he said.

Thompson said scientists had found a canyon on Mars “that makes the Grand Canyon look like a small canyon,” where water could still be present.

“There are indications that there is actually water that seeps out the side of the canyon, and going down the side it evaporates. We believe it’s an ongoing process,” he said.

Three satellites now orbiting Mars are constantly gathering information, and Thompson said, “If there is water, we believe the chances of finding life are greatly increased.”

President Bush wants a permanent presence on the moon and to land people on Mars in the future. NASA’s buildup includes sending at least one nuclear-powered robot to Mars in 2009, the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL, program.

NASA — which just lost its Genesis capsule that crash-landed on Earth with its cargo of solar particles — has competing strains on its resources.

NASA chief Sean O’Keefe said last week it could take at least $2.2 billion to get space shuttles back in flight after Columbia broke up in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

“NASA has a finite budget … (but) they have pretty much assured us that they want MSL, that Mars exploration is very high on the agency’s agenda,” Thompson said. “My understanding is that Mars program office is pretty much assured funding for the next few years.”

MER cost $800 million. The cost of MSL was not clear.

Thompson said the MER robots, which had been expected to die last April, were healthy and may go on for another year.

That made his “the best job on the planet. … How bad is it to have to get up every day to go to work to drive on Mars?

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