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NASA plans to send new rover to Mars

By Amina Khan and Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — NASA officials announced plans to build a new rover that would join Curiosity and Opportunity on the Red Planet’s surface in 2020, potentially to collect soil or rock samples that could later be sent back to Earth.

The objectives are not yet set, nor are the tools the rover would wield, said John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. But Grunsfeld’s remarks Tuesday raised the hopes of planetary scientists that NASA is focusing its efforts on the complex and costly task of retrieving a piece of Mars.

“Collecting a cache of samples is difficult — it requires a very capable vehicle,” said Steve Squyres, lead scientist for Opportunity rover, which landed on the planet in 2004. “The vehicle that John Grunsfeld just described for launch in 2020 is fully capable of doing that job.”

The announcement electrified many of the roughly 18,000 researchers attending the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting taking place this week in San Francisco.

Before Curiosity landed on Mars this summer, NASA was unsure of its future direction in exploring the solar system. Flagship missions to Mars seemed politically unpalatable after Curiosity’s $2.5 billion price tag, and no other major missions had been slated, even as the next launch window in 2018 fast approached.

But the rover’s dramatic landing and early scientific exploits have rejuvenated enthusiasm for Martian exploration.

That has given a boost to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home of the Mars exploration program and the expected lead on the new rover program.

The announcement of a new rover provides a “shot in the arm” for the local economy, said state Rep. Adam B. Schiff, whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

Rather than reinventing the rover all over again, Grunsfeld said NASA will base designs for the new machine on Curiosity’s tried-and-true architecture.

The mission will use the same landing method as the spacecraft once did, a complex sequence involving a heat sheild, a parachute and a rocket platform that lowered the rover to the surface by cable before hurling itself away.

It will even use spare parts collecting dust in Curiosity’s proverbial closet.

The project is estimated to cost $1.5 billion in 2005 dollars.

There are advantages to building a rover along the lines of the Mars Science Laboratory architecture, Paige pointed out.

Engineers have worked out the kinks from the previous mission, they’ve proven that the landing system — which inspired the “7 minutes of terror” video — can work without a hitch.

They can also tap the same scientists and engineers that made the previous mission a success, said Fuk Li, head of the Mars Exploration Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“They’re capitalizing on the investment that’s already been made,” said David Paige, a University of California, Los Angeles, planetary scientist working on the Messenger mission to Mercury.

It’s unclear what the rover would do on the Martian surface, Grunsfeld said. One idea is for the rover to collect and store soil and rock samples. That would only be the first step; a later — and far more complex mission — would be tasked with bringing them back to Earth.

The new rover would rule over a pantheon of seven NASA missions either being operated or planned.

Curiosity and Opportunity currently roam the surface of the planet. The Mars Reconnassance Orbiter and Odyssey satellites circle above them. The MAVEN orbiter, set to launch in 2013, will study the planet’s upper atmosphere, and the 2016 InSight mission will probe the planet’s insides.

The European Space Agency also has spacecraft orbiting Mars, and plans to send a rover to the Red Planet in 2018.

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