NASA Just Announced Its Future Plans for Mars

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Another rover by 2020, and humans by the 2030s

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NASA just announced the plans for the next phase of its Mars program, culminating in the arrival of humans in the Red Planet's orbit by the 2030s. "This announcement," per a NASA press release, "affirms the agency's commitment to a bold exploration program that meets our nation's scientific and human exploration objectives."

One of NASA's big plans for the Red Planet involves a new Mars robotic science rover -- Curiosity's cousin -- which will launch in 2020 and whose design will largely be based on the thus-far-flawless technology that the Mars Science Laboratory employs. That kind of Curiosity mimicry will minimize mission cost and risk, the thinking goes, while leveraging the learnings of previous work.

Another of NASA's plans for Mars, announced earlier this year, is InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) -- a Discovery Program mission that will place a geophysical lander on Mars to study the planet's deep interior. That's slated to launch in 2016.

Taken together, today's announcement means that NASA has a total of seven missions currently operating or being planned-to-be-operated on Mars, with the purpose of exploring our planetary neighbor.

They are:

  • 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
  • participation in the European Space Agency'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 plans respond to the findings of the Mars Program Planning Group, which was established and convened earlier this year to help NASA figure out its priorities for its Mars Exploration Program. And they'll advance, NASA says, the science priorities of the National Research Council's 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey.

"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," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, put it in the NASA 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."

How particularly it will take advantage of that remains to be seen. When it comes to the 2020 version of Curiosity, the specifics when it comes to payload and scientific instruments are still to be determined -- by competition, as per standard processes for instrument selection. To begin with, NASA will establish a science definition team that will work on outlining the specific scientific objectives for the mission.

That team will also, of course, have to grapple with funding as it goes forward. Though the 2020 mission fits within the five-year budget plan in the president's Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, NASA notes, it is also "contingent on future appropriations."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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