Mars One Monthly - January 2017

With a slow news cycle during the holidays, this month’s issue of Mars One Monthly is more of a year-in-review. This makes for a very long read - especially on mobile - so I will start with an overview. If even that’s too long, here’s the TL;DR:

  • Candidates did amazing things like train to be astronauts, join a conference with Nobel Laureates, and publish black hole research.
  • Artistic works inspired by the one-way journey to Mars included an “important” opera, an award-winning song, and… The Simpsons.
  • Mars One did not do much in 2016 but raised enough Euros to make 2017 interesting.
  • Professional Mars explorers continue to find water on Mars, more robots arrived at Mars (some too fast), and Elon Musk might have said something

In the Mars One Candidates section I recap some of the remarkable things the candidates did in 2016. They remain the strongest aspect of the program.

Candidates began preparing for Mars One’s astronaut training program. Some enrolled in astronaut training schools - one even applied to join the Canadian astronaut program. Others joined analog missions such as Nasa’s Human Exploration Research Analog programs. Scientists use simulated space missions to test procedures and evaluate team dynamics in preparation for deep space missions.

The candidates possess a wealth of knowledge and expertise that has sadly, gone largely untapped by Mars One. Over the past year several of them demonstrated the expertise they could bring to a Mars exploration program. A young astrophysicist published her first peer-reviewed paper on black holes. A planetary scientist worked on Nasa’s Curiosity rover. A quantum physicist shared her work with Nobel Laureates and rising talent in the physics community. A biologist described the latest in anti-aging research that could extend healthy human lifespans. 

One reason Mars One continues to get widespread media coverage has been the candidates’ own outreach efforts. Mars One provides the candidates with media assets and helps shield them from abusive interviews, but by and large the candidates work independently from the “mother ship”. Last year candidates spoke at public science celebrations, shared the importance of science and faith, delivered TEDx talks, developed outreach programs, and spoke to schools around the world.

In the Artists section, I review the many works inspired by Mars One over the past year. The concept of a one-way journey to Mars lets artists explore internal conflicts, relationships, and human identity. Some of the works received special recognition. A Spanish novel won a prestigious award. Critics called “Space Opera” an important achievement in Polish and European opera. A New Zealand singer-songwriter won an award for excellence. And an artist’s installation went on exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Oh, and Lisa Simpson joined a Mars One-like astronaut program.

The Mars One section reviews last year’s few important developments. No, Bjorn Borg’s underwear does not count. 2017 promises a change. With a €6 million infusion from a Hong Kong investment house, Mars One can conduct the next candidate selection round and start its astronaut training program. The organization made a slight concession to its critics and revised its roadmap, pushing the first human landing on Mars to 2032. But space industry insiders and journalists still consider Mars One’s plans too ambitious and underfunded.

The Mars section looks back at a year of accomplishments - and hype - from the world’s Mars explorers. Whether Elon Musk’s vision of Red Dragons and giant rockets ever becomes more than cool animations remains to be seen. A new Presidential administration could shift Nasa’s priorities away from Mars. But the fleet of spacecraft orbiting around and roving across Mars continue to produce important discoveries - and document the prevalence of water on the “desert” planet.

Mars One Candidates in the News

Some candidates took advantage of Mars One’s inactivity to better prepare themselves for the next selection round. For some it means special exercise regimes or sustainable diets, but others took a further step towards space:

American engineer Hampton Black and Canadian IT analyst Andreea Radulescu completed an astronaut training program. It prepares people to conduct research on suborbital research vehicles. One of nearly 4,000 people to apply for the Canadian Space Agency's two astronaut positions, Radulescu told the Toronto Star how she goes after every opportunity to become an astronaut.

Russian journalist Anastasiya Stepanova and American nuclear engineer Oscar Mathews took part in analog research projects. Space agencies use simulated missions to test operations and team dynamics long before actual missions begin. Stepanova joined the Mars Society’s Mars 160 project which involves 80-day expeditions to Mars analog sites in the American desert and the Candian arctic. Stepanova described the lessons she learned after completing her 80-day stay at the Mars Desert Research Station. Mathews participated in Nasa’s Human Exploration Research Analog (Hera) at the Johnson Space Center. He and three other volunteers entered a three-storey habitat mock-up to simulate a thirty-day asteroid mission. Astronauts from the Apollo and Space Shuttle Programs congratulated the four explorers for their service.

The media often dismisses the candidates as dreamers (or worse). But there is a remarkable range of professional experience within the candidate pool as these highlights show: 

British astrophysicist Hannah Earnshaw published their first peer-reviewed paper (arXiv:1512.04825). Using data from four space telescopes and the Very Large Array radio observatory, Earnshaw studied what may be a black hole within the spiral arms of galaxy M51.

American planetary science graduate student Zach Gallegos discussed his work with the Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity team and his participation in Nasa’s Mars landing site selection workshop. He talked with the University of New Mexico’s student newspaper about how his background should help his candidacy. (And warned the other candidates that his plans for Martian agriculture include jalapeño peppers.)

Dianne McGrath had a wide-ranging discussion about food sustainability with the Bond Appétit podcast. She spoke about the alarming rate that modern society wastes food and some of the simple things people can do to reduce food waste. Early on in the conversation Dianne explained how space exploration - and the settlement of Mars in particular - can help solve problems here on Earth.

American public relations expert Kelli Gerardi joined a South-by-Southwest panel discussion on the space industry’s presence in Austin, Texas. Gerardi, a media specialist for the Commercial Spaceflight Foundation, also moderated a New Space 2016 panel about lessons space companies can learn from other industries.

American biologist Chris Patil spoke about anti-aging at the Long Now Member Summit. He reviewed the latest research into treatments that will extend human healthspans rather than lifespans. “We want people to be living longer, not dying longer,” Patil explained. Over time this will lead to medical treatments that will reduce the effect of aging and allow people to live longer. Patil closes with a consideration of the implications that society will face as a consequence of these treatments.

South African quantum biologist Adriana Marais attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. The annual event brings several hundred early career scientists together with thirty to forty Nobel Laureates for a weeklong conversation. The 2016 meeting focused on physics as well as on science in Africa. Marais joined a panel on soft matter, a state of matter that includes gels, polymers, and biological materials. In an interview with Nature (PDF), Marais describes the panel discussion and the potential benefits quantum biology could deliver in the form of artificial photosynthesis.

In the first of a two-part interview with Runway Girl Network, Laura Smith-Velazquez describes how her Cherokee heritage and the strong women in her life gave her the drive to succeed. She now has a graduate degree in human factors and systems engineering which she applies on projects at aerospace giant Rockwell Collins and at Nasa’s Langley Research Center. In the second half of the interview Smith-Velazquez talks about the challenges women face in a male-dominated industry.

American systems analyst Yari Golden-Castaño spoke with TechRepublic after addressing an audience at IdeaFestival 2016. Golden-Castaño works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she works on an Earth-Mars laser communications system. The technology will dramatically increase the flow of data between the two worlds - an essential step in establishing a human presence on the red planet.

Outreach is another important aspect of the candidates’ lives. For some it means attending public events to share their passion for space exploration. For others it means inspiring schoolchildren to pursue studies in science and math - and to dream big dreams.

Mohamed Sallam inspires Egyptian youth and young scientists to study space through the “Make Space Yours” outreach program. Launched in November, the program includes an essay-writing contest and a space camp to encourage Egyptian teens to study the sciences. A research competition will challenge Egyptian university students to design microgravity experiments. Contest winners will have their projects flown on a suborbital flight. Salam joined scientist-astronaut candidate Ahmed Farid, space entrepreneur Amr Abdel Wahab, and Mars Society Egypt chief Hamad Gamal on a promotional tour. ”I hope that Omar and I can help today's young people,” Sallam told the launch event audience (reported by Masress). “We want to prove that Egyptians can contribute with new inventions to be used in outer space.”

Local TED conferences often invite Mars One candidates to speak about their aspirations for off-planet living. In 2016 Christian Knudsen, Mohammed Sallam, and Ben Criger each spoke at TEDx Conferences in Aarhus, Kafr Elsheikh, and Toronto respectively.

Attending St Augustine's Church of England High School's conference “God and the Big Bang”, Hannah Earnshaw described how science and faith should complement, rather than oppose, each other. This sparked several media interviews with Inspire Magazine, TWR-UK, and Premier Christian Radio.

Cody Reeder’s outreach videos feature entertaining demonstrations of science and technology. His YouTube channel has nearly 630,000 subscribers and more than 64,000,000 views. Dutch tech site De Ingenieur particularly liked the way he extracted platinum and palladium from dust left on freeways by automotive catalytic converters.

Although distributed all over the world, the Mars One candidates are not isolated from each other. Several events and media interviews included multiple candidates:

CNN host Morgan Spurlock met with Kenya Armbrister, Jay-Mee Del Rosario, Andrew Tunks, and Sue Ann Pien near the Griffiths Observatory overlooking Los Angeles. In the episode “One Giant Step for Morgan” Spurlock interviews people pushing the boundaries of space exploration. He asked the candidates about their motivations and the risks that astronauts will face. “I’m a little skeptic,” Spurlock concluded but he did “respect the fact that they are willing to step up.” Pien posted a preview video to her YouTube page. CNN has not distributed the full video, but... google.

Boston’s Museum of Science hosted “Moving to Mars”, a panel discussion about Mars One. Candidates Daniel Golden-Castaño, Josh Richards, Peter Degen-Portnoy, Sara Director, and Yari Golden-Castaño spoke about the mission concept, their experience in the application process, and what living on Mars would mean for them. Boston University’s news service summarized the event.

The University of Central Florida’s student magazine received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists in part for its cover story featuring George Hatcher and Taranjeet Singh Bhatia.

Australian Geographic's feature on Mars settlement included interviews with sustainability expert Dianne McGrath, comedian/educator Josh Richards, and risk management analyst Rohan Lyall-Wilson, a common thread throughout their conversation was the parallel between Mars exploration and Australia’s pioneer heritage.

A few candidates deserve special mention for how effectively they generate media coverage for their outreach efforts and for Mars One’s mission. This is partly due to an English-bias on the Internet and in the limits of my research skills. But there is no doubt that these candidates put extreme effort into their calling. Here are some highlights of their work:

South African quantum biologist Adriana Marais encourages girls and young women to pursue careers in science and mathematics-related fields.  She pointed out in an interview with eNCA (YouTube) that the fact that only 7% of scientists and engineers in Africa are women is a “tragedy” that must be corrected. Marais supported the MEDO Space Programme which has South African girls building a CubeSat to be launched into orbit. Elle Magazine South Africa included Marais in its feature of fifty women who inspire a new generation of women to pursue innovative careers. Marais also joined a panel discussion at the Women’s Forum Mauritius to discuss bringing more women into science, engineering, and other fields of innovation.

Australian sustainability consultant Dianne McGrath doesn’t just speak about food waste and the need for a more sustainable food supply. She frequently visits schools around the country to encourage students, especially young girls, to pursue their dreams. McGrath addressed the Geography Teachers Association of Victoria’s annual conference, conducted a chat about Mars for Science Works on Yuri’s Night, and discuss “What it takes to make it on Mars” at the Conference of Major Super Funds. (For American readers, “super funds” are non-profit organizations)

Australian physicist/soldier/educator/space activist Josh Richards’ outreach reached far beyond his home country. He served as a teaching assistant at the International Space University’s Space Studies Program in Israel. Richards appeared on the TMRO video podcast in California to talk about the Mars One project and a rejoined TMRO to discuss Elon Musk’s Mars rocket. The hosts spent a lot of time discussing how much they appreciated the outreach that Josh and other candidates conduct. When the Slooh robotic telescope service’s “Time for Kids” webcast showed kids how to find planets in the night sky, Richards explained the Mars One Project and why he wants to go to the red planet forever. Oh. And he sat in a box for five days.

Ryan MacDonald works on planetary science projects at Cambridge University. He has also become a popular spokesman in Britain for a range of space topics. He has joined podcasts like Scienceish and the Unseen Podcast, addressed business confences like EFR Businessweek, and served on panel discussions at popular science events like the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Throughout the year MacDonald's YouTube podcast kept the world up-to-date on Mars One.

While these four are the most visible of the Mars100 candidates, many more granted media interviews, spoke at public events, and conducted outreach programs at local schools. The breadth and scope of their activities is too large to cover in detail. Here are some highlights (with apologies for anyone I missed):

Artists Inspired by Mars One

Artists continue adapt the concept of a one-way journey to Mars into their work. These creators do not care about any specific plan. Instead, they use the concept to explore themes of isolation, curiosity, and hope.

In the feature film Seat 25 a woman enters a competition to join the first Mars expedition but, not expecting to win, does not tell her family. When she learns she won, she has little time to choose between her family and making a new life on another world. The crowdfunded film premiered last year and won Best Feature Film at the Birmingham Film Festival and two prizes at the Raw Science Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Two Indian artists collaborated on “The Common Task” an experimental film based on Mars One. Video artist Pallavi Paul and sculptor Sahej Rahal intersperse Mars One candidate interviews with other visual elements to explore the many questions raised by a one-way journey to Mars.

First Pole on Mars” premiered at the 32nd Warsaw Film Festival. The short film follows retiree Kazimierz Błaszczak as he competes for a spot on Mars One’s first journey to the red planet.

"Generation Mars" depicts a reality TV show that offers to send contestants to Mars. The film, a production of students at the Norwegian Film School, crowdfunded over $3,000 to complete production. Norwegian Mars One candidate Robin Ingebretsen appeared as an astronaut.

The Simpsons aired “The Marge-ian Chronicles” in which Marge tries to discourage Lisa from joining a one-way journey to Mars and by sending Bart to join her. AV Club criticized the lack of daring and humor as well as the “lazy gender stereotyping”.

Not exactly art but… Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the world became the Most Interesting Man on Mars.

New Zealand singer-songwriter Thomas Oliver’s song "If I Move to Mars" won the Apra Silver Scroll Award for excellence in songwriting. He has developed a reputation internationally for his playing of the Weissenborn lap-steel guitar, a rare instrument developed by a Los Angeles luthier between the World Wars. Local studio WETA Workshop (yes, the LOTR one) helped Oliver produce the video for "If I Move to Mars".  Oliver told the New Zealand Herald that "at its core, it's a love song and I meant every word."

The forthcoming album music to draw to: satellite is DJ Kid Koala’s collaboration with Icelandic singer-songwriter Emiliana Torrini. They explore the isolation of deep space travel and was inspired by the Mars One concept. Guelph Today spoke with him before his appearance at the Guelph Jazz Festival. Kid Koala drew a parallel between Mars and the northern winters of Canada and Iceland. “There’s a type of isolation that happens in winter. You can’t escape where you are.” The album releases later this month.

Teatr Wielki presented a single performance of Space Opera which originally premiered in 2015 at the Poznan Grand Theatre. The opera follows husband-and-wife astronauts (and a fruit fly) who become the first people (from an original pool of 100) to set foot on Mars. What follows is an examination of the role of women in society, the ethics of animal experimentation, and the voyeurism of reality TV. Kultura u Podstaw’s review of the premiere called it “an important achievement not only in the Polish contemporary opera but also in Europe.” 

One Way, a musical about Mars One, had its Off-Broadway premiere at Playwright’s Horizon. The show follows Naomi, a young Canadian astrophysicist selected by Fourth Planet for the its one-way trip to Mars. Naomi faces a choice between "scientific advancement and human advancement and human exploration" or the woman she loves on Earth. Co-creator Ben Bonnema explained to the Musical Theatre Factory blog that watching a National Geographic short about Mars One triggered an immediate reaction. "WE NEED TO WRITE A MUSICAL ABOUT THIS" he told co-creator Chis Staskel.

Theatrical company Dara premiered Mars Joan at Barcelona’s Tantarantana Theatre. The comedy follows Joan (John in Catalan) as he justifies leaving Earth forever. Mars One candidates Núria Tapias and Àngel Jané spoke with members of Dara during the show’s development. Àngel told that Joan Mars captures the conflicting aspects of being a Mars One candidate while Núria told La Vanguardia that the play may help people understand that Mars One candidates “are normal people”.

The Mars Project returned to Perth in a leaner form. The original 17-person student play has been restructured to a 5-person production. It follows Wren as she advances through an astronaut selection process on reality TV. Perth Arts Live found the “scathing condemnation of selfishness” had “more depth and better clarity this time around the Sun.” Performing arts hub said the nuanced performance “creates an opportunity for contemplation and later reflection”.

Dani Solomon’s one-woman show One Way Red premiered at the Philly Fringe Festival in September. The show weaves together “haunting sequence of scenes that explores what it’s like to take a trip into the unknown, from which you can’t come back.” Solomon told Phindie she hopes her work poses interesting questions around “loneliness, legacy, and narcissism”. The Medium Theatre Company also staged a performance and actor’s workshop at Colgate University.

University of Wisconsin drama major Justin Spanbauer produced Mars Lost. He told the Pointer that the play is a “story about a woman confronting the things she has on Earth and why she might want to start over on Mars.”

The Hollywood Electric Band premiered One Way Trip to Mars at the Chocolate Church Arts Center (Maine, USA). Set in 2033, the dramatic rock opera follows Paolo on his one-way trip to the red planet. The space agency sends his wife Cassandra to Mars to save humanity after a nuclear war breaks out. “It’s really a story of love and consciousness,” Alexander told the Times Record. Songwriters Peter Alexander and Johannah Harkness are working with dramatist Dennis St. Pierre to create a full theatrical production this summer, but have scheduled an abridged performance at the Frontier Theater on January 21.

Heidi Neilson and Douglas Paulson took their Martian culinary project to Washington, DC. The artists met with experts in space nutrition, food sustainability, and recycling to create an Mars analog kitchen. Visitors to the "Menu For Mars Kitchen" could create their own meals which were then vacuum sealed and integrated into the exhibit. The Washington Post reported that the Mars kitchen was hugely popular - especially with Nasa’s employees.

American artist MPA has followed up on her original Mars One-inspired piece "The Interview: Red Red Future" with a new installation, "Red in View", at the Whitney Museum. The work unfolds in four movements: 

  • Prelude: the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos appear periodically. 
  • Interview: visitors engage in an anonymous phone call about Mars.
  • Orbit: MPA and other artists will inhabit an “artificial biosphere” 
  • Assembly: a theatrical finale to Orbit. 

"Looking at Mars,” MPA explains on the Whitney site, “this imagined space reflects most humans back to Earth." Blouiin Artinfo interviewed her about the way the Mojave Desert, local military activity, and Mars combined in her creative process. “My conception of Mars,” MPA explained, “has migrated from being a force for war and revolution, to an inevitable human destination, to a mother of the human race, to an imaginary form.

Wyoming's Sheridan College announced it will exhibit Lanny DeVuono’s series Outer Space at its Whitney Art Gallery. DeVuono explains that the paintings and drawings “imagine extraterrestrial exploration as promised by groups from Virgin Galactic to XCOR Aerospace to Mars One.” The exhibit runs January 22-27.

Journalist Raquel Moraleja San José's novel Sin Returno: El sueño de vivir en Marte (No Return: The dream of living on Mars) won the University of Castilla-La Mancha’s Faculty of Arts' Exemplary Novels Award. The story follows a young journalist applying for a one-way journey to Mars. Moraleja explained to Mi Ciudad Real that her protagonist's story mirrors the struggles Spanish journalists face in the modern economy.

British science fiction writer DJ Cockburn’s short story “Mars One” shows how important toast etiquette may be for the first settlers of Mars.

Madame Mars by filmmaker, cinema professor and former Mars One candidate Jan Millsapp entered post-production. The documentary “tells the story of women and Mars – the challenges they have faced in their efforts to explore the red planet, the contributions they have made to our knowledge of Mars.”

Dutch journalist Joris van Casteren’s new book Mensen op Mars delves into the Mars One Project. Cutting Edge’s review says that he treats the candidates “with humor and an open mind.”

The Guardian’s Head of Documentaries Charlie Phillips spoke about his short Mars One documentary with Docs on Screen. Produced in 2015, he cites “If I Die on Mars” as an example of how his group addresses stories that don’t make it into the newspaper.

The German documentary "Man on Mars” has entered distribution. The producers spent a week with candidate Robert Schröder to document the motivations that drive someone to pursue the dream of Mars settlement.

Mars One in the News

Limited finances constrained Mars One from doing much in 2016. Both the release of a book about selecting colonists and a report on pressure suit design had been promised years ago but were finally made public. The organization restructured its for-profit licensing and merchandising operation at the end of the year, allowing it to go public on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

With the public listing and a €6,000,000 investment from Hong Kong firm World Stock & Bond Trade, Mars One has the funds it needs to begin the astronaut selection process. “We are incredibly excited about securing this investment” Bas Lansdorp said in the press release. “It will give Mars One the resources to take the next important steps in our mission to Mars. Additionally, it gives us a stronger position in negotiations with broadcasters for the documentary series around astronaut selection.”

With the financing came an acknowledgement that its timeline was out of date. Mars One now intends to conduct the next selection round in 2017 and begin astronaut training in 2018. The rest of the roadmap has been pushed out to support a first human landing on Mars in 2032.

Most media coverage in 2016 simply paraphrased Mars One’s press releases, but a few reports did give the group some faint praise:

But even with those few compliments, most space insiders remain skeptical:

News from Mars

Elon Musk generated the biggest Mars buzz in 2016 with his Red Dragon proposal and the the presentation of his Interplanetary Transport System. The mainstream media’s gushing coverage soon gave way to more nuanced assessments:

Humans on Mars was the subject of one out of every four presentations to the Future In-Space Operations working group in 2016. The most recent presentations include Chel Stromgren’s review of spacecraft reliability and the effect reliability decisions has on the spare parts requirements. Nasa’s Michelle Rucker looked at alternative fission reactor approaches..

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation project (Hi-Seas) runs analog Mars missions in a habitat perched atop the dormant volcano Mauna Loa. The fourth Mars analog mission concluded in September when the six crew members walked out of their habitat and breathed fresh air for the first time in twelve months. Physician Sheyna Gifford, writing in Nautilus, described how crew dynamics let them avoid the stresses common to previous long-duration analog projects. Later this month the fifth Hi-Seas mission begins an eight-month stay on "Mars".

As mentioned earlier, the first stage of the Mars Society’s Mars 160 mission began last year. With the Mars Desert Research Station expedition complete, the analog astronauts will visit the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station for 80 days this summer.

No, this is not Mark Whatney's missing potato. It is the first color image from the Trace Gas Orbiter of Martian moon Phobos. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2016 mission reached the red planet. Much of the media attention focused on the Schiaparelli lander’s unfortunate impact on the Martian surface. Everything went perfectly, however, for the Trace Gas Orbiter. Mission planners began checking out instruments and will spend all of 2017 lowering its orbit to begin collecting science data.

Esa’s Mars Express mission found new life for the orbiter’s webcam. Originally used to document the separation of the rover Beagle from the orbiter has been used for public outreach over the past ten years. As a result, its archive documents ten years of climatic change.

Mars in the ultraviolet taken from Nasa's Maven orbiter. Credit: Nasa / University of Colorado-LASP / Maven-IUVS

Nasa’s Maven mission explores the atmosphere and ionosphere of Mars and how it interacts with the solar wind. The image above shows the unexpected nightglow created when nitric oxide forms. The data will help scientists understand the interaction between the solar wind and Mars. Maven began its fifth campaign deeper into the Martian atmosphere.

Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed its first decade at Mars. It has sent more than 264 terabits of data back to Earth. Over the course of the year scientists published MRO-based research that found:

Citizen scientists with Planet Four: Terrains analyze MRO images to map "spiders" in 20 regions around the Martian south pole. Spiders are seasonal features that appear in the early Martian Spring as carbon dioxide frost sublimates. Planetary scientist Meg Schwamb said in the press release, “Without the efforts of the public, we wouldn't be able to see how these regions evolve over the spring and summer compared with other regions.”

The venerable Mars Odyssey orbiter completed its 15th year in space. It continues to contribute useful scientific data. A recent shift in orbits will let scientists study ground fog and clouds that form at the Martian dawn. Unfortunately, Mars Odyssey went into safe mode at the end of the year.

Nasa will keep the Insight mission alive. A leak in the vacuum chamber of Insight’s seismic instruments forced the space agency to cancel this year’s launch. Nasa will attempt the next launch in 2018.

Nasa began planning its next orbiter mission. The space agency selected five companies, all major aerospace contractors, to develop concepts for an orbiter to be launched sometime in the 2020’s. The companies have four months to propose concepts that use cutting edge technologies in propulsion, communication, and remote sensing.

A panorama of Marathon Valley from the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Credit: Nasa / JPL-Caltech / Cornell Univ. / Arizona State Univ

Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s original 90-day mission entered its 12th year with a successful drive down Marathon Valley into Endeavour Crater. Its next major destination is a gully that may have been carved by liquid water.

Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is now climbing up Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons). As it advances, differences between succeeding geological layers will uncover evidence of the planet’s history. This follows a year in which the rover explored sand dunes and learned how to target lasers on its own (pew-pew-pew). A problem with the rover’s drill forced planners to pause the mission at the end of 2016.

Nasa stepped up planning for its Mars 2020 rover mission. The rover uses legacy parts from Curiosity but with state-of-the-art instruments and artificial intelligence. It will collect samples of the Martian surface foe a later mission to recover and return to Earth. 

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission has circled the red planet since 2014. Last year the ISRO issued the first data release which covers the mission’s first year in orbit. The MOM has not detected methane, its original goal, but a former director of the Indian space agency told NDTV that the mission has enough fuel to run for some time.

At the end of the year China released its latest space policy white paper. An orbiter to be launched in 2020 will be followed by a sample return mission in the 2030s. Its human spaceflight strategy is still focused on Earth orbit, but Andrew Jones writing at the Planetary Society believes the planned launch and habitat capabilities leave “little doubt as to Chinese eventual lunar desires”.