Nasa has announced plans to launch another Mars rover in 2020 that could collect and store samples for return to Earth.
The new rover would follow up the agency’s Curiosity mission. Its development and design would be based on the Mars Science Laboratory architecture that successfully carried the Curiosity rover to Mars, Nasa said.
Curiosity, a one-tonne, six-wheeled vehicle, landed in Gale Crater near the Martian equator in August. Its two-year mission is aimed at determining whether or not Mars could have hosted microbial life.
John Grunsfeld, the U.S. space agency’s associate administrator for science, said replicating Curiosity’s chassis, sky-crane landing system and other gear would enable Nasa to cut the cost of the new mission to about $1.5 billion including launch costs.
Nasa was forced to pull out of a series of joint missions with Europe because of budget shortfalls. But Grunsfeld, speaking at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, said Nasa would provide a key organics experiment for Europe's ExoMars rover, as well as engineering and mission support under the agency's proposed budget for the year beginning October 1, 2013. The U.S would also provide the radio communications equipment for a planned European orbiter slated to launch in 2016.
Details about what science instruments would be included on the new rover, whether or not it would have a cache for samples, and the landing site have not yet been determined. Nasa plans to set up a team of scientists to refine plans for the rover and issue a solicitation next summer.
Nasa had considered flying an orbiter in 2018, but decided instead to provide equipment for the European probes, extend its ongoing Mars missions and develop the Curiosity twin rover for launch in 2020. "We could have come up with something in 2018, but with the budget that we're in we would not have had such a full program. It would have been a down-scaled orbiter of some kind," Grunsfeld said.
Under the revamped Mars plan, Curiosity's two-year mission would be extended to five years.
The new rover also would help Nasa prepare for eventual human missions to Mars, a long-term objective of the U.S. space program.
"If we think of the 2030s as the potential for human exploration, I think this 2020 rover and the other things we might be able to do in the 2020s as a synergistic collaboration between science and human spaceflight. There are a lot of cool things we can do," Grunsfeld said.