NASA plans to send a new rover to Mars in 2020 as it prepares for a manned mission to the Red Planet, the US space agency said on Tuesday.
The announcement came a day after NASA released the results of the first soil tested by the Curiosity rover, which found traces of some of the compounds like water and oxygen that are necessary for life.
US President Barack Obama’s 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.”
NASA was forced to pull out of some joint missions with the European Space Agency after its budget was slashed earlier this year. It hopes to save money on the next rover — currently estimated to cost US$1.5 billion — by using spare parts leftover from Curiosity and sticking to the same successful design.
The new rover brings the number of NASA missions currently operating or being planned for Mars to seven.
The Opportunity rover has been exploring the Martian surface since 2004. The much more sophisticated Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater on Aug. 6. Two other spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars to study the planet from above and help relay signals from the rovers.
A new craft — the Maven — is set to launch next year to study the Martian upper atmosphere. NASA also plans to send a craft dubbed InSight to dig the planet’s depths in 2016 to determine whether the planet’s core is solid or liquid like Earth’s.
“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,” said astronaut John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science.
While the rover’s name and actual mission must still be worked out, Grunsfeld said he hoped it improve on Curiosity with the addition of a 3D camera.
Grunsfeld also hopes it will have the ability to collect samples to bring back to Earth instead of discarding them after they have been tested.
As for finally once again openly looking for signs of life, such as tough microbes able to withstand the harsh Martian environment, “It would be very exciting to send a new mission to a place where there could be current extant life,” Grunsfeld said.
The first spacecraft reached Mars in 1965. Mariner 4 sent back 22 close-up photos of the planet’s cratered surface and won the US the honor of the first successful mission to Mars.
The Soviet Union was the first to successfully land on Mars in 1971, but the Mars 2 failed after relaying 20 seconds of video to an orbiter. Five years later, the US managed to land the Viking 1 and Viking 2 crafts, which sent back thousands of images and reams of data before they were deactivated.
Most missions to Mars have failed, although there have been a handful of successful projects, including the Pathfinder, which landed in 1997, and the Spirit, which landed in 2004 and roamed the surface for six years before contact was lost.
The US$2.5 billion nuclear-powered Curiosity is designed to hunt for soil-based signatures of life on Mars and send back data to prepare for a future human mission.
It is the biggest robot ever built for planetary exploration — weighing in at a tonne, about the size of a small car — and carries a complex chemistry kit to zap rocks, drill soil and test for radiation.
Scientists do not expect Curiosity to find aliens or living creatures, but they hope to use it to analyze soil and rocks for signs the building blocks of life are present and may have supported life in the past.