In response to a Congressional request, NASA is drawing up plans for the next generation of robotic missions to Mars, which will be presented in August at the National Academies committee review.
While the Mars 2020 rover is currently under construction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there are no plans beyond it for Mars exploration.
On July 10, the agency’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) agreed to create and deliver a plan for future robotic missions to roam on the Martian surface, drill into its soil, and even descend into surface pits.
Michael Meyer, who leads NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said upcoming missions will concentrate on collecting Martian rocks and soil.
“It is in August when the committee meets that they’ll hear a coherent Mars architecture for what we hope to do for sample return and potentially other missions associated with that. We’re on the hook to present something because this is actually something that Congress has asked for in their appropriations,” he reported.
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory planetary geologist Jeff Johnson expressed concern that the rovers currently exploring Mars are getting old and run down.
Curiosity, which has been exploring the Red Planet since 2012, has had its wheels punctured from driving along rough terrain. Opportunity, designed to last three months, has been traversing the Martian surface since 2004.
Orbiting between 160 and 200 miles above Mars’ surface, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter takes detailed images of surface features such as dried up lake beds and also communicates information between Earth and Mars.
NASA hopes to have a new orbiter circling the Red Planet by 2022.
On the surface, Mars 2020 will use its robotic arm to collect and store rocks for future return to Earth. How the return will be done has not yet been determined and will require Congressional funding far beyond the $2.9 million allocated in the proposed 2018 budget for robotic exploration of the Red Planet.
“The problem here is things look good because we have so many missions there from past investments,” commented Casey Dreier, who directs space policy for the independent Planetary Society.
“It’s much harder to point out that we’re not making the investments now to set up the program we want for the next decade.”
The plan to be submitted in August deals solely with robotic exploration and does not address NASA’s goal of sending astronauts to Mars sometime during the 2030s.