Today, NASA announced a $1.5 billion plan to build another Mars rover based on the design of its current Curiosity rover. Their intention for the new rover design is to send it to Mars in 2020.
According to NBC News, the move comes less than a year after the space agency said it couldn’t afford to contribute $1.4 billion to the European-led Exomars missions, and it seems likely to stir new debate within the planetary science community.
Hoped-for missions to other interplanetary destinations, such as the Jovian moon Europa, may be affected by the revised plans for Mars exploration.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, insisted that the budget could handle the new commitment. He said this in a NASA news 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.”
Grunsfeld said that the future rover will be built on the same basic design used for the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover. This will allow them to capitalize on the design work that was done during Curiosity’s development for its Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Thanks to a spare radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the new rover will also be nuclear-powered.
Grunsfeld announced the plan for the rover remake during a town-hall session at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.
Projected budget cuts have cast a fair amount of uncertainty over future plans for interplanetary probes, but the idea of bringing samples back from Mars for study on Earth is on top of planetary scientists’ priority list for the next decade.
Grunsfeld told the AGU audience that the rover might be given the capability to gather and store samples for later return.
NASA said that a science definition team would be selected to outline the mission’s objectives, and that the selection of science and instruments for the mission would then be openly discussed.
According to the agency, the future mission will also help lay the groundwork for eventual human exploration of Mars.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in today’s statement:
“The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program. 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.”