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A New Approach to Mars

Internal research initiative targeted Mars for new skills, applications

The SwRI Initiative for Mars (SwIM) concluded this spring after nearly four years of focused internal research and development sponsored by the Institute's Advisory Committee for Research. 

Although originally intended to last just two and one-quarter years, SwIM was extended for an additional 15 months with an increase in internal funding from the original $2.1 million to $3.1 million. This enabled SwRI scientists to perform 19 projects targeted at developing technologies for future Mars missions, and undertake many other activities designed to bring Mars experience to SwRI.

Between January 2003 and December 2004, the SwRI investment yielded more than two dozen newly funded projects, the largest of which is an $8 million contract resulting from a new instrument proposal for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), part of a 2009 Mars lander mission. 

For that mission, SwRI is to provide an instrument that will characterize the radiation at the surface of Mars. The mission, part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, will explore the viability of the surface of the red planet as a potential habitat for past or present life. 

Measurements taken by the Radiation Assessment Detector will be useful for the future design of shelters, habitats and spacesuits to protect astronauts on Mars. SwIM played a vital role in the instrument's initial design.

If President Bush's mandate to NASA comes to fruition and the space agency undertakes a program to send humans to Mars later this century, the SwIM legacy may continue benefiting Institute clients for decades. 

"Mars is an exciting, major strategic focus of NASA's work; it is an area where the Institute has to become a player," said SwIM Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division. "One of the important benefits of the investment made in SwIM is that it is expected to be yield new Mars research proposals and funded projects for many more years to come."

Walter Downing, Executive Vice President-Operations, said, "SwIM is typical of those grass-roots initiatives that are conceived by our staff, which so often take the Institute into new technologies and program areas." 

He added, "I am pleased that we were able to undertake the SwIM initiative and are now entering Mars exploration and research in a significant way."

SwIM was conceived as a strategic initiative to make the Institute a leading participant in NASA's Mars program, which increased dramatically in size and scope between 1995 and 2001. The Institute sought to secure a larger role in future Mars exploration missions and research - not just in planetary science and astrobiology but also in geology, hydrology, geochemistry, instrument development, robotics and other technologies for eventual human Mars missions.

Expanding space science and space engineering capabilities beyond the traditional purview of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division to include allied expertise in several other divisions was a particularly successful aspect of the SwIM initiative, said Dr. Wesley Patrick, vice president of the Geosciences and Engineering Division. 

One SwIM-funded project involved using technologies developed for Earth-based geological studies to investigate surface and subsurface faulting on Mars, particularly in an unusual series of linear features called pit crater chains. These chains of crater-like depressions form when the ground collapses as a rift forms, usually along a fault line. Over time, the individual craters coalesce into deep troughs.

Similar structures have been observed on Earth where a rift has formed along a fault line. High permeability along pit crater chain faults may make them an ideal place to search for evidence of past water and life on Mars. 

"Although technology transfer is a longstanding mission of the Institute, we generally see it in terms of transfer from SwRI to a client," Patrick said. "In the SwIM program, the transfer was from Earth-based applications to Mars. We were able to apply our in-depth expertise, particularly in the geosciences, to a whole new world. 

"Our Earth scientists quickly became Mars scientists," he added.



Published in the Spring 2005 issue of Technology Today®, published by Southwest Research Institute. For more information, contact Joe Fohn.

Spring 2005 Technology Today
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