The stunning success of the Curiosity Mars rover has emboldened NASA to have another go. The US space agency has announced plans to send a new robotic explorer to the Red Planet in 2020.
This rover will have the same chassis as Curiosity and a duplicate sky crane will lower it to the surface. The 2020 rover will even use spare parts left over from the Curiosity mission, such as a nuclear power supply.
Reusing plans and parts is a smart move since NASA can be confident it doesn’t have to iron out design kinks, and it will save on costs, says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the science mission directorate at NASA.
The rover is expected to cost $1.5 billion – $1 billion less than Curiosity’s price tag.
News of the new rover came hard on the heels of a somewhat mixed announcement from the Curiosity mission, revealed on 3 December at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. An interview on public radio with chief scientist John Grotzinger led to frantic speculation that the rover had already found definitive evidence for organics, carbon-containing compounds that are the building blocks of life.
Mission scientists revealed that the rover had baked Mars soil and detected organic molecules inside its ovens, but they couldn’t confirm whether the carbon was Martian or merely an Earthly contaminant.
“The Earth-shaking news from Curiosity is that it all works,” Grunsfeld said at an AGU press conference on 4 December. “It’s amazing that we were able to send such a craft to Mars and the seven minutes of terror [descending through the Martian atmosphere] resulted in a soft landing.”
Eventually, NASA is aiming to bring back pristine samples of Martian rock for thorough analysis on Earth. With that in mind, the 2020 rover may test the technologies for sample return, including handling and storing rock on board.
“Including caching would make the rover responsive to the National Academy Decadal Survey,” says Scott Hubbard of Stanford University in California, referring to priorities outlined by the US National Academy of Sciences for the next decade of planetary exploration.
The new rover might also have a 3D camera with a zoom lens that was meant to fly on Curiosity. The camera, built in collaboration with film-maker James Cameron, did not make it on board for the 6 August launch because of technical difficulties.
“I was a big fan of the 3D [camera] and the zoom lens,” Grunsfeld said yesterday at a press briefing. “I’m more than happy to engage in a spirited discussion for this next rover to include those elements.”
In a slight reversal of plans, NASA also announced at the AGU that it will use some of its 2013 budget to support the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission, due for launch in 2016. NASA will provide the communications system that will let the orbiter talk to Earth and to instruments on the surface of Mars. The agency will also help build the Mars organic molecule analyser (MOMA), the largest instrument scheduled to fly on ESA’s ExoMars rover in 2018, Grunsfeld said.
He emphasised that NASA is not asking for more money for the 2020 rover mission, but is merely specifying how the money already requested will be spent.
“We have the backing and the approval of the administration to move forward with this plan,” NASA’s director of planetary science, James Green, told New Scientist. Other NASA projects waiting for approval need not fear being short-changed, said Grunsfeld. “It doesn’t raid other parts of planetary or science [missions].”
For now, NASA’s 2013 budget is being debated by Congress. But in making yesterday’s announcement, NASA hopes to get a head-start on the new rover mission.
“Even though 2020 may seem like a long way off, it’s really not a lot of time to get ready, so we kind of had to start,” Grunsfeld told New Scientist. “Being able to put together a science definition team and having things roll six months sooner than later could actually make a difference in the ability to mount such a mission.”
Syndicated content: Anil Ananthaswamy, New Scientist