EXPRESSions of Venus


I didn’t realize this little guy was still in operation.

Its not really the latest news about the probe that made me want to blog about it, but rather the nature of the probe and how it found itself orbiting Venus.

A few years earlier, the European Space Agency (ESA) had launched a successful Mars mission called Mars Express.   It was so successful that they used spare parts from that project to build Venus Express.   I believe Venus Express has slightly different instrumentation than the Mars one.

What I like about this is that it is very contrary to how we do space here in the US.   This is a good example of what we, America, should be doing instead.   The ESA had similar objectives for their Mars and Venus missions.   In the US, we would have built a brand new spacecraft from the ground up for each mission.   In the EU, who apparently are more cost-savvy, they re-use stuff they know works to do similar missions.  

I have never understood why the US insists on investing millions of dollars into brand-new, never-before-flown, systems to do science similar to the science they did with another spacecraft previously in NASAs history.     Why don’t we reuse what we know works… start making ‘production’ models of space probes instead of developing new ones from scratch every time we want to venture beyond low-earth-orbit?   It is costly to engineer something brand-new from scratch.   Spacecraft are costly anyway, but if we were building a new copy of something we used already, we can cut out most of the R&D costs for the new mission.    Just build a probe like the last one that did the same job, and outfit it with the latest and greatest in sensor tech.    Its not exactly rocket science  (since, of course, we’re talking about the payload and not the rocket itself).

Just a thought.

Take the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.   These are MER-Class rovers.   MER stands for Mars Exploration Rover.    They are still functioning after seven (earth) years on the Red Planet when they were designed to last 90 days.    That’s pretty impressive.   So for our next Rover mission we’ll build some new ones and give them better cameras and sensors and send what we know works, right?   Wrong.   We’ve invested millions into the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL-Class Rover).  Its behind schedule and over budget.   Plus its entirely new hardware, and a landing system that has never-before-been tested.   Given the way they intend to get this thing on the ground… my bets are that we’ll be creating an impact crater with our sparkly new rover.     The landing mechanisms for the MER rovers aren’t scalable to the size of the MSL.

Now while we would eventually need to build an MSL that is bigger, and more capable than the MER rovers… I think we could get a lot more science done if we started building MER rovers en mass.    Mars doesn’t have to be the destination for these guys either.   The moon needs roving before we get people up there again.   Asteroid Apophis is on its way… we could benefit a bit from getting something on the thing so that we can not only study asteroid composition, but track it better so we can know with greater certainty if its going to collide with the Earth on its next pass.  (although it might not have the gravitational tug necessary to keep the MERs from bouncing right back into space, courtesy of their airbag-rig for landing)

Now some might tell you that the MER rovers were built to study the water history on Mars.  Well so too is the MSL.   However, its the sensors attached to the robotic arm on the MER rovers that are designed to study the water history.  The rovers themselves are designed to drive around, take pictures, and communicate with Earth.   The rovers are the platform, the instruments are the mission.

So those MER rovers could pretty much rove anywhere, and depending on what kinds of instruments you put on them, study a lot more than just the history of water off-world.

When you consider economies of scale, if we weren’t building from scratch every time we explored our solar system, the per-mission costs would be going down instead of up.  More science for a lower cost is good in my book.

2 Replies to “EXPRESSions of Venus”

  1. Someone should let NASA know that just because the taxpayers are paying the bill, doesn’t mean that they don’t need to behave in a somewhat business-saavy fashion. I haven’t taken a side in the debate, but it is understandable that some people are pushing to privatize space exploration.

    1. I think Privatization is a good thing in Space. Government shouldn’t be the only player. I’m not thrilled with Obama’s overall space plan, but I do like that he’s relegating the “we’ve done that before” stuff to private space and focusing national resources on the ‘where no one has gone before’ type of missions. I just think he’s silly to bypass the proving ground that is the moon to get to other places.

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