NASA Reveals Plans for New Mars Rover

by Jason Major on December 4, 2012

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Sequels are all the rage these days… even for NASA, apparently.

At the American Geophysical Union 2012 convention in San Francisco today, NASA’s associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld revealed the agency’s plans for another Mars mission. Slated to land in 2020, it will be a rover based on the same design as Mars Science Laboratory. Estimated cost of the mission was announced to be $1.5 billion.

This news brought mixed reactions from many of those in attendance as well as followers online, as while more exploration of the Red Planet is certainly an exciting concept, we have all heard — and seen — countless tales of budget cuts and funding problems throughout NASA over recent years, and many proposed missions and collaborations have had to be shelved or cut short due to lack of funds (remember ExoMars?) Even though the budget for this mission is supposedly “not being taken from other areas,” it’s clearly not going to them either. It will be interesting to see how this plays out across the agency.

The full press release from NASA can be seen below:

(Via NASA)

Building on the success of Curiosity’s Red Planet landing, NASA has announced plans for a robust multi-year Mars program, including a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020. This announcement affirms the agency’s commitment to a bold exploration program that meets our nation’s scientific and human exploration objectives.

“The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “With this next mission, we’re ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s.”

The planned portfolio includes the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers; two NASA spacecraft and contributions to one European spacecraft currently orbiting Mars; the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere; the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars; and participation in ESA’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing “Electra” telecommunication radios to ESA’s 2016 mission and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

The plan to design and build a new Mars robotic science rover with a launch in 2020 comes only months after the agency announced InSight, which will launch in 2016, bringing a total of seven NASA missions operating or being planned to study and explore our Earth-like neighbor.

The 2020 mission will constitute another step toward being responsive to high-priority science goals and the president’s challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s.

The future rover development and design will be based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) architecture that successfully carried the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface this summer. This will ensure mission costs and risks are as low as possible, while still delivering a highly capable rover with a proven landing system. The mission will constitute a vital component of a broad portfolio of Mars exploration missions in development for the coming decade.

The mission will advance the science priorities of the National Research Council’s 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey and responds to the findings of the Mars Program Planning Group established earlier this year to assist NASA in restructuring its Mars Exploration Program.

“The challenge to restructure the Mars Exploration Program has turned from the seven minutes of terror for the Curiosity landing to the start of seven years of innovation,” Grunsfeld said. “This mission concept fits within current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity.”

The specific payload and science instruments for the 2020 mission will be openly competed, following the Science Mission Directorate’s established processes for instrument selection. This process will begin with the establishment of a science definition team that will be tasked to outline the scientific objectives for the mission.

This mission fits within the five-year budget plan in the president’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, and is contingent on future appropriations.

Plans also will include opportunities for infusing new capabilities developed through investments by NASA’s Space Technology Program, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, and contributions from international partners.

________________________

NASA and John Grunsfeld will be hosting a follow-up press conference later today at AGU, which will be streamed live online at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST. Stay tuned for more information.

 

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A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Roger Shike December 4, 2012 at 10:20 PM

That’s cool, I guess, but after the recent findings in Antarctica’s Lake Vida I was hoping for a Europa or Enceladus mission. Or anywhere else but Mars…. again…..

Matt Borgelt December 5, 2012 at 4:13 AM

europa enceladus or titan for sure :(

Jeffrey Scott Boerst December 5, 2012 at 7:06 PM

Mars is close, thus faster to reach and safer to achieve, learning more about Mars is vital to speeding up the arrival of the inevitable manned missions, and face it… they’re on a roll! (though a sample/return makes more sense as it’s the next step in their current chain of exploration)

JonFrum December 4, 2012 at 10:30 PM

That sounds like a lot of money for ‘more of the same.’ While they keep talking about finding evidence of life on Mars, all the insiders know that the chance of that happening is vanishingly small. You may as well spend your money trying to determine whether you’re going to be the next winner of the Mega Lottery.

Jeffrey Scott Boerst December 5, 2012 at 7:12 PM

No, actually finding evidence of past or present life on Mars is becoming more and more likely… Do you actually follow the ongoing story on this as it’s progressing or chime in on the few and far between snippets you randomly come across with uninformed opinions?

Jason Major December 5, 2012 at 8:53 PM

What makes you think “all the insiders know that?”

technoboi10 December 4, 2012 at 10:42 PM

NASA looks to be more interested in searching for signs of life on Mars than they are in actually finding it. If they actually landed set of analyzers on Mars that would definitively answer the question ‘is there life on Mars’, they’d have to live with the answer for eternity. And yes, I realize that Martian life might not be recognizable by our instruments, or present wherever the lander happened to test. But even given those limitations, it seems to many people that NASA scientists are timidly creeping up on the issue, rather than grabbing it by the throat. If the weight of scientific consensus shifts (as it seems to doing, albeit slowly) toward the assumption that life never developed on Mars, then that leaves a big hole in NASA’s rationalization for concentrating so much time and money on a single planet. Maybe Elon Musk will finally settle the issue by placing humans on Mars, thus creating a new answer to the question of whether there is life there or not.

Tony Mach December 5, 2012 at 10:25 AM

NASA tried to “grabbing it by the throat” with the Viking landers and look were it went: No science done on Mars for over a decade. Better take it one step at a time, and answer the simple questions first (e.g. were was the water in the past, how long was water present and so on), questions where one understands what to ask and how to ask. Then we can ask the next questions (and e.g. know much much better where to land and what instruments to design to find past life or even present life, if it existed or still exists).

Hans Peter Uhrig December 6, 2012 at 12:15 PM

The problem was not the Viking mission and its objective to directly test for life on Mars but the conclusions drawn from the results. Surely the results were not as smooth as expected but that’s science.

Look at where we stand now after several missions after Viking with a totally different focus: we still have no clue about life on Mars – although existing hints for its existence from the Viking mission and its biology experiments 36 years ago.

I dare to predict if NASA would have followed up the Viking results directly we would have either proof of life or some exotic Martian oxidizing soil chemistry on Mars by now with implication for any manned missions to come…

Torbjörn Larsson December 5, 2012 at 10:21 PM

I would add to the observation that a Viking type mission can only be unsuccessful until biospheres have been sufficiently constrained that habitability of planets is the current hot topic.

In a decade or two this will shift to life detection, and it would be great if our missions in the system started to shift over to that, as is happening with the ExoMars and NASA 20202 rover.

John Stock December 4, 2012 at 11:33 PM

They pulled out of ExoMars due to not having any money and leave Europe in the poop.. and now this? hmm..

Raimo Kangasniemi December 5, 2012 at 12:35 AM

Exactly. Announcement of a new big rover project
so soon after NASA abandoned ExoMars is unlikely to be cheered by ESA behind the
scenes. ESA Moon Lander might not have had to be shelved if NASA’s
byzantine budget games wouldn’t have brought extra costs to ESA.

John Stock December 5, 2012 at 12:39 AM

I see it as a protection mechanism by NASA.. It’s almost like they don’t want ESA to succeed on mars. Partners or competition?

Raimo Kangasniemi December 5, 2012 at 1:02 AM

I wouldn’t go that far. It’s true that NASA tends to be a bad ally, not out of any intention of being so, but because of the way it’s funded.

NASA missions need to be accepted yet again in each budget. With ESA a mission almost always goes through when it has been once confirmed, but NASA…

The list of confirmed and later cancelled NASA missions even during this millennium is long and the money already spent on them before cancellation is equal to the combined monetary worth of several Curiosity-type Mars rovers.

Torbjörn Larsson December 5, 2012 at 10:26 PM

I read an article on a Congress (IIRC) space strategy group the other day, where they note that they can’t go forward with international cooperation with ESA. (Implicitly because US is seen as unreliable.) I wished I saved a link to that.

Instead they were considering cooperation with China, which is still eager to make such. Oh, the irony.

M Peter Selman December 5, 2012 at 6:28 AM

The U.S. hasn’t exactly abandoned Europe on ExoMars. If you read the article, NASA is providing the radios for ESA’s new Trace Gas/ Telecommunications Orbiter, and co-engineering the astrobiology package for the ExoMars Rover. NASA will also be providing advice and assistance for engineering Europe’s and Russia’s landing systems for the EDM and Rover. We’re past the 60′s, it’s not competition, it’s still partnership. The cost of launching two Atlas V’s was going through the roof and spoiled the original agreement.

TerryG December 5, 2012 at 9:19 AM

Good point about Planetary Science budgets supposedly being under threat….yeah right!.
Also called into question are recent whine and gripe articles alleging there’s a shortage of Plutonium for space-based power applications.
It’s great to have a second Lincoln Continental of a rover headed to the red planet. The up-coming Exo-Mars rover is a Ford Pinto by comparison.
Good work NASA….so is a sample return mission would be next?

Raimo Kangasniemi December 6, 2012 at 1:55 AM

It’s a Ford Pinto that can detect life, the first mission since Vikings to be send to look for life outside Earth.

NASA’s Lincoln Continental on Mars could have also carried similar equipment to ExoMars, but it doesn’t because NASA apparently thinks that directly looking for life decreases chances of getting missions through the US Congress.

That’s why Curiosity II is also unlikely to carry life detecting equipment, although if ExoMars finds life on Mars in 2018, Curiosity II’s instrument selection (which would have to be selected years earlier) could, of course, changed but that would lead to pushing back the mission to 2022.

Raimo Kangasniemi December 5, 2012 at 12:34 AM

Why not re-instate the plan for Io and Europa orbiter instead, if they now have the money?

Dima R December 5, 2012 at 4:25 AM

Why not develop some kind of international space exploration units, sending them all over the solar system. similar to the international space station thing…

Sreejith Ramakrishnan December 5, 2012 at 12:56 PM

Enceladus, Europa or even Mercury (since they recently found water in it). So many places to go. Mars is exciting of course. But there’s a lot more to explore.

Bobby Hudson December 5, 2012 at 7:59 PM

I’m sure the new rover would appear similar to MSL but the instruments might be different. The timing of this announcement is questionable since there was a claim that the funds were tight. Now there’s a new influx of funds for another rover? Why not develop a mission for exploring Titan’s surface instead?

Jason Major December 5, 2012 at 8:56 PM

It sounds like they had a “Mars budget” and this fit into that budget, regardless of other missions in progress or on the table. You know how budgets work… even within a small company you can’t re-allocate easily. In a federally-funded administration like NASA it must be orders of magnitude more difficult, if not impossible.

Torbjörn Larsson December 5, 2012 at 10:06 PM

If this sounds mysterious, timing and target, this Planetary Society article may be illuminating:

“Today’s announcement essentially designates money already set aside for a Mars mission to a specific mission concept. That’s it. It did not take money away from outer planets missions, because in the 2013 budget there is no funding for outer planets missions. It did not unfairly prioritize Mars over other planets because this money had already been prioritized to Mars back in February.”

One can also see that they likely choose the C alternative of the tasked Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG). It will be an Atlas V launcer, so it is not the cheaper alternatives based on MER/Falcon 9 architectures.

eddyfca December 6, 2012 at 7:06 PM

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