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The Question

(Submitted June 04, 1997)

I think the solution to the exploration of the surface and atmosphere of Mars is in the use of a vehicle capable of flight. Current attempts at the construction of a vehicle to explore the surface have failed to meet expectations. It seems lighter-than-air vehicle would over come the limitations of surface transportation. An RPV (balloon w/ solar powered propulsion) could gather more information from a wider range of sources and possibly return to Earth or a retrievable distance under its own power. What do you think?

The Answer

The idea of using a balloon to study the atmosphere and surface of Mars has a long history. In 1987, the Planetary Society began advocacy and development efforts which led to the acceptance of a Mars Balloon for the Russian Mars 96 mission. Although the Russian space agency later pulled out of the project because of operational and funding problems, the concept has strong support and will probably be used on some future Mars mission.

I doubt if Mars balloons will be given a sample return capability. Sample return is difficult and will be applied mainly to returns from the surface, where the science is more compelling and the engineering much simpler.

An interesting byproduct of all the attention that has been given to the Mars balloon concept is an increased interest in long-duration balloon flights above the Earth! See:

http://lheawww.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/balloon/workshop96/

Best wishes,

Paul Butterworth
for the 'Ask an Astrophysicist' Team

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