An announcement was made at the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting that represents a big triumph for the NASA Mars program.
According to National Geographic, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said that the agency has enough funds to build and operate a second Curiosity-style rover.
“The new science rover builds off the tremendous success from Curiosity and will have new instruments.”
The new rover, Curiosity II, is estimated to cost $1.5 billion. This is $1 billion less than the price for the first Curiosity. However, it will require congressional approval.
While the 2020 rover will have the same one-ton chassis as Curiosity, it will have different instruments. Also, many hope that it will have the capacity to cache a Mars rock for later pickup and delivery to researchers on Earth.
Even though Curiosity and the other Mars rovers, satellites, and probes have gathered a lot of knowledge about Mars, planetary scientists still say that no Mars-based investigation can as informative as studying a sample in person here on Earth.
That’s why “sample return” has topped the list of what NASA should focus on for the next decade regarding Mars.
Astronomer Steven Squyres said:
“There is absolutely no doubt that this rover has the capability to collect and cache a suite of magnificent samples. We have a proven system now for landing a substantial payload on Mars, and that’s what we need to enable sample return.”
Bringing a rock sample back to Earth from Mars would require three missions: one to select, pick up, and store the sample; a second to pick it up and fly it into a Mars orbit; and a third to take it from Mars back to Earth.
Scott Hubbard, formerly NASA’s “Mars Czar” said:
“A sample return would rely on all the Mars missions before it. Finding the right rocks from the right areas, and then being able to get there, involves science and technology we’ve learned over the decades.”
Curiosity’s success has changed the thinking about Mars exploration, said Hubbard.
More than 50 million people watched the NASA coverage of Curiosity’s landing, and cheered when the rover touched down safely. If things had turned out differently with Curiosity, “we’d be having a very different conversation about the Mars program now,” said Hubbard.
If Congress gives the green light, the 2020 rover would be the only $1 billion-plus “flagship” mission—NASA’s largest and most expensive class of projects—in the agency’s planetary division in the next decade.
NASA has also announced a series of smaller missions that will precede the 2020 rover mission.
The MAVEN spacecraft is set to launch next year and will study the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail.
A lander planned for 2018 will study Mars’ crust and interior, and NASA will renew its promise to participate in a European life-detection mission in 2018.
NASA said that a request for soliciting ideas about what science instruments might be on the new rover would go out soon.