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NASA plans new Mars rover for 2020

December 5, 2012 |  3:53 am
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

NASA officials plan to build a new rover that would follow Curiosity on the surface of Mars.

The announcement electrified many of the roughly 18,000 researchers attending the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting this week in San Francisco.

The objectives are not yet set, nor are the tools the rover would wield, said John Grunsfeld, head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. But Grunsfeld's remarks Tuesday raised the hopes of planetary scientists that NASA would be focusing its efforts on the complex and costly task of retrieving a piece of Mars.

"Collecting a cache of samples is difficult -- it requires a very capable vehicle," said Steve Squyres, lead scientist for the Mars exploration rover mission, which put Opportunity on the planet in 2004. "The vehicle that John Grunsfeld just described for launch in 2020 is fully capable of doing that job."

Before Curiosity landed on Mars this summer, NASA was unsure of its future direction in exploring the solar system. Big-budget missions to Mars seemed politically unpalatable after Curiosity's $2.5-billion price tag, and no other major missions had been scheduled, even as the next launch window in 2018 approached.

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

That has given a boost to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home of the Mars exploration program and the expected lead on the new rover program.

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 Cañada 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.

Read more: NASA plans new rover mission on Mars

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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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