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12:01 PM ET 11/21/99

Robotic Space Outposts Predicted
AP Science Writer

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) _ In a lecture that sometimes sounded more like science fiction than science, a NASA official said the next era of space exploration will involve missions that last for years rather than weeks and will eventually pave the way for manned probes to the planets. Edward Stone, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said he foresaw a network of orbiting communications satellites on Mars as well as rovers that drive around for miles and construct the robotic outposts. ``It's a logical next step,'' he said Nov. 16. ``But it will depend on the development of technology so that we can bring `up there' back here through the power of communications.'' Stone, chief scientist of the Voyager project to the outer planets and director of NASA's lead center for interplanetary probes since 1991, made his comments during the Carl Sagan Memorial Lecture at the American Astronautical Society's annual meeting. Stone did not mention the recent loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, which was managed at his lab, or the NASA investigation report that criticized JPL navigators and managers for failing to catch the metric error that doomed the craft. The orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, which is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet on Dec. 3, are part of the space agency's plan to send smaller spacecraft into space more often and at less cost than in the past. Rather than dwell on tight budgets, Stone suggested that the ``faster, better, cheaper'' mantra espoused by NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin is actually the natural course of space exploration. The first probes launched to other planets in the 1960s proved the technology, he said. The second-era spacecraft, which were launched in the 1970s and 1980s, were loaded with expensive instruments that were well suited for global studies of the planets. But the billions of dollars spent on massive probes like the Viking landers on Mars as well as Voyager and Cassini to the outer planets were worth the cost, he said. ``This era of going once a decade with these large comprehensive missions has given us enough information so that we are now smart enough to ask the most important questions,'' Stone said. The $165 million Mars Polar Lander is part of the third generation of spacecraft: It has a limited science agenda of searching for water and studying the atmosphere _ answering questions raised by the big probes and proving technology for the next era. A more in-depth understanding of other planets, including whether life was ever present, will require robotic outposts over a period of years rather than the current 30 to 60 days, he said. Such missions will use existing energy sources on the planets rather than importing fuel from Earth. A fleet of communications satellites will provide nearly constant contact with home. And onboard instruments will drill deep into the planet, unlike the literal scratching of the surface by today's probes. Stone, who did not make cost or time estimates, also predicted rovers will explore the surface of other planets. Unlike Sojourner aboard Mars Pathfinder, future vehicles will be able to cross much greater distances, he said. Sagan, who popularized space science in books and television before his death in 1996, said the greatest benefit of exploration is that it helps people understand their place in the universe. ``Perspective is the most fundamental return of what we get from exploration,'' Stone said. ``Although we have just begun the third era of exploration, we nevertheless have to have a large view of the future so that we can be prepared and shape that future.''

Updated Fri, Nov 26, 1999 Content maintained by Thomas Waksvik
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