NASA's continuing exploration of Mars with scientific rovers on the red planet's surface will continue into 2020, when the space agency plans to launch another robotic science rover based on its successful Curiosity rover.
The future mission was unveiled Dec. 4 by NASA as part of a "robust multiyear program" that aimed at preparing the nation's space program to send humans to a Mars orbit by the 2030s, according to a NASA statement.
"The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "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."
The 2020 Mars rover program, which has not yet been named, would reuse designs, parts and technology from the current Curiosity rover which has been exploring Mars since landing on Aug. 6. By reusing Curiosity's successful blueprints, the space agency expects to save a lot of money in development costs, while continuing its exploration of the planet, according to NASA. "This will ensure mission costs and risks are as low as possible, while still delivering a highly capable rover with a proven landing system," said the space agency. "The mission will constitute a vital component of a broad portfolio of Mars exploration missions in development for the coming decade."
Full details of what that 2020 mars mission will entail have not yet been determined. The specific payload and science instruments for the mission will be debated and selected later through an open competition after the scientific objectives for the mission have been formulated, according to NASA. The mission will also be contingent on receiving adequate funding.
NASA's Mars exploration efforts in the next decade or more will also include the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, which will study the Martian upper atmosphere, as well as a mission called Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight), which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars.
NASA will also participate 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 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," astronaut John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, said in a statement. "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."
So far, the Curiosity rover and its onboard Mars Science Laboratory Project are less than four months into a two-year prime mission to investigate whether conditions in Mars' Gale Crater may have been favorable for microbial life, according to NASA. "The mission already has found an ancient riverbed on the red planet, and there is every expectation for remarkable discoveries still to come."
One of Curiosity's main tasks on Mars is checking for organic compounds, the carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life, according to NASA. "At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics," the agency reported.
Just this week, Curiosity has analyzed the Martian soil for the first time, according to a Dec. 3 NASA blog post, and has found "a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples Curiosity's arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover."
This is the first time that a Mars rover has been able to scoop up soil into analytical instruments for a deeper look into the soil and its composition, according to NASA. "The specific soil sample came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called 'Rocknest.' The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater still miles away from the rover's main destination on the slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover's laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyze gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds—carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life."
The research and sampling will continue.
"We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater," SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy said in a statement. Mahaffy works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Much of the science world has been abuzz with excitement since Curiosity's August landing.
Curiosity successfully fired its rock-melting laser for the first time Aug. 19 as it ran through tests to be sure that the work of its science experiments will be able to proceed as planned.
The rover has been taking spectacular photographs on Mars since arriving after a 354-million-mile, eight-month voyage from Earth.