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NASA announces Mars science rover in 2020

NASA/JPL

Remember all the complaints about the end of NASA’s Mars programme? Mars scientists can turn their frowns upside down. NASA says that it will be sending another science rover to the surface of Mars in 2020, using the same chassis and landing system as was used for the Curiosity mission (pictured). Though the science payload is not yet decided, scientists are already hoping that it will be a caching rover — a mission to gather rocks that subsequently would be brought back to Earth for intensive study.

“We have a whole new Mars mission, and I’m really excited about that,” says NASA science chief John Grunsfeld, who made the announcement today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

For most of this year, NASA had been wrestling with the future of the Mars programme. It had formed a panel to look at options for a 2018 mission, and with a budget envelope of $700 million, only an orbiter was really possible. By waiting until 2020, however, Grunsfeld apparently could find enough money for a rover that he says might cost $1.5 billion. “This still all depends on Congress,” he says, suggesting that the administration of President Barack Obama is behind the project. Normally, announcements of big projects with future year commitments are kept under wraps until the president releases his budget request in February. “The fact that we can announce it here … is a really telling sign.”

While the mission will welcomed by hard-rock Mars scientists, it will have some enemies.

First, it is another strike against planetary scientists who want to explore places further out in the Solar System. The astrobiological significance of the Jupiter moon Europa, which harbours a salt water ocean under a thin shell of ice, has long intrigued scientists. But most Europa mission designs have come in with price tags of several billion dollars.

And even some Mars atmospheric scientists may be unhappy with another rover. NASA had plans to fly an major instrument on the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter mission, due for launch in 2016, which would have followed up on the still-tantalizing question of whether methane exists.

But those plans evaporated when NASA pulled out of ESA’s ExoMars programme for a sum of money less than what NASA says it now has for the 2020 rover. In addition to the involvement on the Trace Gas Orbiter, NASA was to launch a caching rover alongside a European life-detection rover in 2018.

So one way of viewing today’s news is that NASA has announced a rover for 2020. But a more cynical viewpoint is that, after all the noise and hand-wringing of the last year, all NASA has really done is delay its 2018 rover by two years.

With additional reporting by Jeff Tollefson

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