If you encounter Professor Joel Levine, and he asks, "Brother, can you spare $650 million?" don't be taken back.
He needs the money to send a pilotless, rocket powered, controlled airplane to the Red Planet Mars to obtain important, previously unobtainable measurements of the atmosphere, surface and interior of planet.
Levin, a senior research scientist at NASA for 41 years, currently serves as research professor in the Department of Applied Science at the College of William & Mary.
When I asked him, why there is a need for $650 million to launch the "Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey" (ARES) project, he explained: "All NASA plenary missions range in cost from about $650 million to several billion dollars, including the $150 million cost for the Atlas launch vehicle for the 9-month trip from Earth to Mars! Remember, the $650 million does not end up on Mars but supports the economy of Hampton, Williamsburg, Pasadena, Washington, DC, Seattle, etc.
"Over the last 40 years, NASA has sent stationary landers and mobile rovers to the surface of Mars and orbiters several hundred miles above the Mars. An aerial platform can investigate surface and atmospheric features not observable any other way."
Levine's first job at NASA Langley, was to develop the models of the upper atmosphere of Mars used in the Viking Project. His model was the first to predict, the presence of the gases argon and helium as constituents of the atmosphere of Mars
But he is now involved in another ambitious Mars mission. This robotic, rocket-powered airplane would be able to fly through the atmosphere of Mars about a mile above the surface and search for evidence of life on Mars by looking for trace gases of biogenic origin, an indicator of the presence of life on Mars. It can fly over volcanic craters, mountains and valleys, all previously inaccessible to investigators.
"An aerial platform can search for life on Mars, investigate the history of the atmosphere there, the polar caps composed of frozen water and carbon dioxide, investigate mysterious regions of very strong magnetism on the surface of Mars, and much more," Levine said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette.
The practical results he expects to obtain for the ARES Mission include: Is there life on Mars? Why did Mars evolve from a very hospitable, Earth-like planet with thick atmosphere and surface liquid to a very inhospitable, devoid of surface water and very thin atmosphere?
Levine believes that the ARES Project could rewrite the textbook on our understanding of Mars. He has been involved with NASA Langley scientists and engineers in the development of an airplane to fly through the atmosphere of Mars for more than a decade. He has served as co-chair of the NASA Panel to plan and prepare for human exploration of Mars, a U. S. national goal.
For the ARES Mars Mission, NASA Langley Research Center is responsible for the development of the ARES Mars Airplane and the entry system to safely transport it on an Atlas launch vehicle into the atmosphere of Mars for its historic flight. The College of William & Mary, in turn, is responsible for defining and developing the scientific goals and objectives of the ARES Mission, as well as to identify the scientific instruments on the airplane to successfully achieve the scientific goals and objectives.
"Most of NASA missions to objects in the Solar System were developed and led by universities in partnership with a NASA Center," Levine explained. "To develop an aerial platform to fly through the atmosphere of Mars, NASA Langley, the oldest research center in U. S involved in aeronautics and space research, partnered with William & Mary. Working on ARES Mission with NASA, will allow the college, faculty and students to get involved in the U. S. space program."
Levine, who founded and directs the Atmospheric Science Program, a masters and doctorate-granting program in the Applied Science Department of the College, pointed out that students working on the mission can use their research for their Masters theses, and doctoral dissertations.
"From NASA's perspective, this partnership provides an excellent source of future scientists and engineers for hiring," he said.
NASA is expected to release an "Announcement of Opportunity" for robotic missions to objects in the Solar System, sometime in 2014-2015.
"The proposals are due 90 days after the release of the "Announcement," Levine said. "Typically, these proposals are over 1,000 pages, single-spaced! The College of William & Mary, in partnership with the NASA Langley Research Center, will submit a proposal to NASA Headquarters, and if selected for the mission, it is from where founding for the ARES project is expected to come."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.