Via The Great Beyond: NASA pursues Mars methane orbiter.
When Michael Mumma, of Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, finally published his methane-on-Mars results in Science, it certainly caused a stir. So far, the people tasked with picking a spot for the Mars Science Laboratory rover have resisted the allure of a landing site that sits within a broad methane hotspot, arguing that the hotspots are still too uncertain. Well, NASA is going to get to work on that uncertainty: it announced today that it is considering a "Mars Science Orbiter" (MSO) mission in 2016 that would specifically look to see when and where Mars is belching up the natural gas. (Methane can be produced via natural geologic processes but could also point towards hives of microbes living and burping underground.)
NASA Mars Program Chief Doug McCuistion described what the agency calls its "baseline" plan at the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group meeting in Virginia on Tuesday, a chance for the science community to offer feedback on these long-term plans, which are often very tentative -- and very fluid. The plan would include an MSO in 2016 followed by a exobiology lander or rover mission launched during a particularly juicy launch window in 2018 (the best since the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, McCuistion says). That plan would satisfy two longstanding NASA program requirements: keeping continuous communications orbiters in place for lander missions (Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be getting old), and continuous practice with the tricky task of landing spacecraft on the surface (gotta keep those engineers employed). The plan would also follow a natural progression: MSO would map the methane