August 12, 2012

Despite Curiosity’s Success, Future Of NASA Mars Missions Uncertain

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The touchdown of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity made news headlines around the globe and restored the public's interest in the U.S. space program, but the pressure is on NASA to succeed in future planned missions to the Red Planet.

While Curiosity "set the stage for a potentially game-changing quest to learn whether the planet most like Earth ever had a shot at developing life, but follow-up missions exist only on drawing boards," Reuters reporter Irene Klotz explained in a Saturday report.

NASA had initially planned to join forced with the European Space Agency (ESA) for three missions starting in the year 2016 -- missions that would have resulted in Martian rock and soil samples being returned to Earth, Klotz said. However, US government officials withdrew from the program earlier this year, citing budget concerns, she added.

"The situation is complicated by massive budget overruns in the $2.5-billion Curiosity mission, intended to determine if Mars could now or ever have supported microbial life, and in the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble observatory," the Reuters reporter explained.

"Those overruns are partly to blame for leaving Mars exploration short of the multibillion-dollar commitment needed for another 'flagship' mission of the scale it would take to fetch rocks and soil from the Red Planet and bring them home," she added.

Sometime this month, the American space agency is expected to release a report suggesting alternative Mars missions that would require less investment and would be able to launch within the next six to eight years.

One possibility that has been discussed is a second rover mission, which could be sent to one of the three other landing sites that had initially been considered for Curiosity. However, Mars Exploration Program Chief Doug McCuistion told Reuters that NASA is unlikely to be able to have the money to fund such a project.

Another would result in the launch of a new orbital satellite used to find and analyze minerals, while also providing a back-up way for Curiosity and other mobile labs to communicate with NASA officials back on Earth.

The primary goal remains to locate and retrieve samples from the planet's surface, though, officials told Reuters.

Michael Meyer, NASA's chief Mars program scientist, told Reuters that sample return was "the overall goal" set by the National Research Council (NRC). "I suspect there are other things that we may do on Mars," he added, "but if they don't help sample return they may be viewed as a non-starter."

"The only other Mars mission in NASA's pipeline at the moment is an atmospheric probe scheduled to launch at the end of next year," Klotz said. "The agency plans to submit its follow-up Mars proposals to the White House in September, in time for the fiscal year that begins in October 2013."