NASA has announced a new Mars exploration program through the year 2020 to be built on the wreckage of the old, eviscerated by Obama administration budget cuts. It will culminate with a repeat of the Mars Curiosity rover in 2020.
New Mars rover to be launched in 2020
The centerpiece of the new Mars exploration plan is the launch of a new Mars rover, based on the Mars Curiosity, in 2020, according to NASA. The idea is that there are enough spare parts to build and deploy such a rover on another region of Mars to continue the scientific exploration of its surface. The new mission would also be a repeat of the complex but successful landing operation that included a "skycrane" that lowered the car-sized Mars rover to the Red Planet's surface.
MAVEN to launch in 2013
Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) will launch in 2013. MAVEN's mission will be to analyze the Martian upper atmosphere and, using ultraviolet sensors, determine how the Martian climate was changed over billions of years as its atmosphere was gradually lost into space.
InSight to launch in 2016
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is scheduled to launch in 2016. Based on the Mars Phoenix, the InSight lander is a geophysical mission designed to look into Mars' deep interior and to determine what kind of processes led to the formation of the Red Planet.
Participation in Europe and Russia's ExoMars planned
Because of Obama administration budget cuts, as reported at the time by Space.com, NASA was compelled to pull out of the joint ExoMars mission with Europe which in turn forced Europe to take on Russia as a full partner. The new announcement states that NASA will provide some minimal help to ExoMars, providing a telecommunication system for the 2016 probe and part of an astrobiology instrument for the 2018 rover.
New Mars exploration program 'bold' and 'robust' but also cheap
NASA describes the newly revamped Mars exploration program as both "bold" and "robust." It is, however, somewhat less bold and robust than it was planned to be before the Obama administration cuts to NASA's planetary science account. NASA's participation in ExoMars had been scaled back to a bare minimum. The only new mission that has been announced is a repeat of the Mars Curiosity rover. The other adjective besides "bold" and "robust" that certainly applies is "cheap." In an era of trillion-dollar budget deficits in which space is not a priority, that is making a virtue out of necessity.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.