NASA Announces New $1.5 Billion Mars Rover for Launch in 2020

NASA Announces New $1.5 Billion Mars Rover for Launch in 2020

NASA announced today that it has White House approval for a new Mars rover mission to be launched in 2020.  John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said the $1.5 billion mission can be accommodated within the Obama Administration’s existing funding profile for robotic Mars exploration.

NASA’s plans for robotic Mars exploration have been headline news in the space community since the Obama Administration released its FY2013 budget request, which cut Mars funding by 20 percent while the rest of the space and earth science budget remained relatively flat.  Consequently, NASA withdrew from cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a series of Mars missions that were intended to lead to returning samples of Mars to Earth.   NASA-ESA cooperation on two missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018 collectively referred to as ExoMars was the casualty.   ESA subsequently reached agreement with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, to replace NASA as its partner on the ExoMars missions, although NASA will still participate in a much more limited role.

At the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco today, Grunsfeld excitedly announced what he called the new plan for robotic Mars exploration, which adds a new NASA mission to land another rover on Mars in 2020.

NASA currently has two functioning rovers on Mars — Opportunity, which landed in 2003, and Curiosity, which landed in August 2012, and two functioning orbiters — Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars in 2001 and 2006 respectively,  ESA’s Mars Express has been in orbit since 2003.

Grunsfeld laid out the plan for future U.S. and international Mars exploration as follows:   NASA’s MAVEN mission scheduled for launch in 2013 to analyze the Martian atmosphere; NASA’s new InSight mission in 2016; ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter mission also in 2016; ESA’s ExoMars mission in 2018 (ESA’s 2016 and 2018 missions are usually referred to collectively as the “ExoMars missions”); and now a new NASA rover to be launched in 2020.

The 2020 NASA rover would cost $1.5 billion (in FY2015 dollars) including launch costs, Grunsfeld said at a press conference today.   It would use spare parts from the Curiosity mission as much as possible, he said.   Curiosity cost $2.5 billion, compared to its original estimate of $1.6 billion, and its launch was delayed for two years because of technical concerns.  The excitement over its successful landing after “seven minutes of terror” because of its cutting-edge landing system and its explorations to date seem to have erased any concerns about its cost overruns and schedule delay.

NASA will establish a Science Definition Team to decide what instruments are needed on the 2020 rover.   Probes can be launched to Mars every 26 months based on when the two planets are correctly aligned.  Some of those “windows” are better than others in terms of how much energy (i.e., propellant) is needed to get there.  One of the best windows is 2018 and Grunsfeld said that he was striving to launch a mission that year to take advantage of the opportunity, but budgets would not allow the launch of a rover that year, only an orbiter.  He became convinced it was better to wait for another two years, to 2020, so that a rover could be launched because the “action now is on the surface.”

NASA and most other government agencies often clash with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has the task of matching agency budget requests with overall government spending priorities.  Grunsfeld gave OMB a rare compliment today, saying that he has “nothing but the kindest words to say” about OMB as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that sets policy.

While Grunsfeld’s announcement clearly was good news for the U.S. Mars community, it opened questions about the future of other NASA solar system exploration aspirations and about U.S. international space cooperation.   Mars is a fascinating destination that has “a special place,” Grunsfeld said, but other space scientists are anxious to explore other destinations, such as moons around other planets that may harbor life such as Saturn’s moon Titan or Jupiter’s moon Europa.   As for international cooperation, ESA is still scrambling to find the money to fund the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, even though the ESA ministerial council approved the revamped scheme to replace NASA with Roscosmos as the primary partner.  NASA still plans to contribute a communications payload to ESA’s 2016 mission, officially known as the Trace Gas Orbiter, and an instrument for ESA’s 2018 ExoMars mission, but it is far less than ESA expected and the sudden announcement of a new NASA mission begs the question of why NASA could not have found a way to maintain its agreement with ESA.

When NASA’s FY2013 budget request with its 20% cut to Mars exploration was released, leading to NASA’s withdrawal from broader cooperation with ESA, one explanation was that OMB was unwilling to sign up to the muiti-mission multi-year commitment of missions that ExoMars envisioned that involved collecting and storing (“caching”) samples of Mars for later return to Earth for analysis.  Grunsfeld said today that the Science Definition Team for the new 2020 rover would would look at the issue of caching.

The February announcement of the 20% cut was met with great dismay in U.S. space policy circles.   NASA’s announcement today that, never mind, everything is OK and we have a new rover mission in 2020, was surprising.  The first announcement was at an AGU “Town Hall” meeting during the day, with a later press conference.   Alan Boyle reported for NBC that the reaction at the Town Hall meeting was “deeply mixed.”  He quoted a tweet from Lindy Elkins-Tanton of the Carnegie Institution of Washington as saying “NASA town meeting audience is quiet.  I think we are all in shock.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) who represents the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which built Curiosity and is operated by the California Institute of Technology for NASA, applauded the announcement, but said he would fight to accelerate the launch to the 2018 opportunity.  Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who represents an adjacent district, also praised the decision.

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