OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES ASSOCIATED WITH THE ON-GOING GEOLOGICAL EXPLORATION OF MARS
The science of geology has been a primary beneficiary of this activity. The increased understanding of Mars’ geology has enabled increasingly detailed comparisons with the geology of the Earth. These comparisons are leading to new insights into the nature of geologic processes at a variety of scales. Perhaps even more importantly, the oldest well-preserved rocks in the Earth’s geologic record are only 3.4 Ga, whereas Mars has a geologic record that extends back to well before 4.0 Ga. The exposures on Mars may therefore give us crucial insights into what was happening on our home planet during a key period that is unrepresented in our own geological record. For these reasons, the study of martian geology has become a core component of many university geology departments around the world.
However, the Mars program is now at a crossroads. The scientific community in the U.S. (as represented by the National Academy of Sciences) has concluded that the next logical step to answer remaining key questions about Mars, such as whether or not life ever existed on that planet, is to return scientifically selected samples to Earth for analysis (Mars Sample Return; MSR). However, MSR is expensive enough that questions have been raised about its affordability in an era of budget challenges. This leads to questions on where to go from here. Given the actual, potential or expected discoveries of the current Mars Science Laboratory mission, what are our priorities for follow-up activity? Are there viable ways to make MSR less expensive without sacrificing its scientific potential? Could/should the cost of MSR be shared via an international coalition? Is another orbiter needed before a rover, and how might it connect to MSR? What lies on the other side of MSR? These kinds of questions need community discussion.