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Curiosity's success inspired 2020 Mars mission [Google+ hangout]

December 5, 2012 | 10:57 am

Mars rover Curiosity's dramatic landing and early scientific exploits have rejuvenated enthusiasm for Martian exploration.

NASA officials announced plans to build a new rover that would follow Curiosity and Opportunity on Mars' surface in 2020. Times science reporter Amina Khan will join city editor Shelby Grad at 1 p.m. in a Google+ hangout to discuss the proposed mission.

The objectives are not yet set, but the excitement about Mars exploration has given a boost to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home of the program and the expected lead on the new rover program.

From Khan's Wednesday article:

The new rover, estimated to cost $1.5 billion, promises to provide a "shot in the arm" for the local economy, said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes JPL in La Canada Flintridge.

Mars missions make up a significant share of JPL's projects. Over the last decade, Curiosity alone employed about 3,000 staffers and brought in 4,000 others from outside the lab.

Rather than reinventing the rover all over again, Grunsfeld said NASA would base designs for the new machine on Curiosity's tried-and-true architecture.

The mission would use the same landing method as the spacecraft carrying Curiosity did, a complex sequence involving a heat shield, a parachute and a hovering platform that lowered the rover to the surface by cable before hurling itself away.

It would even use spare parts collecting dust in Curiosity's proverbial closet.

There are advantages to building a rover along the lines of the Mars Science Laboratory, as the Curiosity mission is officially known, said David Paige, a UCLA planetary scientist working on the Messenger mission to Mercury.

Engineers have worked out the kinks from that mission. They've proved that the landing system — which inspired NASA's popular online video, "Seven Minutes of Terror" — can work without a hitch.

They can also tap the same scientists and engineers who made the previous landing mission a success, said Fuk Li, head of the Mars Exploration Directorate at JPL.

"They're capitalizing on the investment that's already been made," Paige said.

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Photo: Plans for a new rover mission to Mars would be modeled in some ways after the mission that sent the Curiosity rover, shown here in an artist's rendering, to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA

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