Looking to build on the great success and popularity of its current Mars Science Laboratory mission, NASA today announced plans to explore the red planet further, including launching another sophisticated robot rover by 2020 and widely expanding other Mars scientific projects.
The plan to design and build a new Mars robotic science rover -- which will mirror the technology employed with the current Curiosity rover -- will advance the science priorities of the National Research Council's 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey (The report from the community and team of scientists that help NASA prioritize space missions) and further the research needed to send humans to the planet sometime around 2030, NASA said.
In the National Research Council's report it stated: "Mars is unique among the planets in having experienced processes comparable to those on Earth during its formation and evolution. Crucially, the Martian surface preserves a record of earliest solar system history, on a planet with conditions that may have been similar to those on Earth when life emerged. It is now possible to select a site on Mars from which to collect samples that will address the question of whether the planet was ever an abode of life. The rocks from Mars that we have on Earth in the form of meteorites cannot provide an answer to this question. They are igneous rocks, whereas recent spacecraft observations have shown the occurrence on Mars of chemical sedimentary rocks of aqueous origin, and rocks that have been aqueously altered. It is these materials, none of which are found in meteorites, that provide the opportunity to study aqueous environments, potential prebiotic chemistry, and perhaps, the remains of early Martian life."
The exact experiments and research to be conducted by the new rover will be determined in the coming years.
Also part of the plan include the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere as well as the InSight HP3 or Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport mission, which will drill into the deep interior of Mars. NASA will also be a part of the European Space Agency's 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 mission and what NAS called a "critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover."
Such plans with ESA have been in and out of the works for years. NASA and the ESA originally envisioned the ExoMars program would launch a system to the red planet by 2016 with a second launch in 2018. Also in their plans, ESA said it would build what it calls an Entry, Descent, and semi-soft Landing System (EDLS) technology demonstrator and a science/relay orbiter. In 2018, the ESA/NSA combo would deliver its ExoMars rover equipped with drilling capability. NASA's contribution in 2016 included the Atlas rocket for launch, a trace gas mapping and imaging scientific payload for the orbiter. In 2018 NASA committed a rocket for the launch and other technical components. The program would focus on conducting a variety of astrobiological, geological, geophysical, climatological, and other high-priority investigations and aiming at returning samples from Mars in the mid-2020s.
"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," NASA's associate administrator for science, and astronaut John Grunsfeld said in a release. "This mission concept fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity."
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