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New Rover in NASA's Mars Exploration Plans

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

December 06, 2012

New Rover in NASA's Mars Exploration Plans

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

NASA has announced it plans to put a new robotic rover on Mars, planning for a launch in 2020. It will be a part of a portfolio of ongoing operations designed to study the Red Planet that already includes two rovers, two NASA satellites currently orbiting Mars plus instruments on a European spacecraft and numerous other opportunities over the next eight years.

The 2020 Mars mission will be based on the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) architecture, utilizing spares and technology developed for the rover. Estimates put the price tag (News - Alert) on the mission at around $1.5 billion, using Curiosity's spare parts and the "Skycrane" style landing system. Instruments to go on the rover are going to be openly competed once a science definition team outlines the science objectives for the mission. 

Image via Shutterstock

Some researchers are pushing for the rover to include a sample caching system to store rocks and dirt for future recovery and return to earth. Bringing back Martian samples to search for signs of life is on the to-do list for astrobiologists, but the complexity of returning even a small payload from the surface back to Earth has proven to be a challenging and expensive proposition.

Regardless of what the future rover carriers, it will join the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the surface of Mars. The nuclear-powered Curiosity started its initial two year mission earlier this year, while the smaller Opportunity has been slowly roaming around on solar power since 2004. 

NASA also has a number of orbiter and lander projects in the works. MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) will be launched in the future and orbit the planet to study the Martian upper atmosphere.  InSight, using a lander design similar to the Phoenix ground ice mission, is scheduled to land on Mars in 2016 to collect seismic and heat flow data, driving a probe five meters deep into the surface to take Mar's surface temperature. In addition, NASA will provide telecommunications radios for the European Space Agency (ESA) 2016 ExoMars mission and parts for a biology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover. 

The new announcement comes after NASA had to reworks its Mars plans due to budget stresses, including cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA had initially planned deep involvement with ESA's ExoMars 2016 and 2018 missions, including providing Atlas five launch vehicles and split the cost of the 2018 rover, but later bailed out on both efforts. ESA is now working with the Russians to launch both ExoMars missions.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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