WASHINGTON – NASA plans to launch more machines to Mars, perhaps to return a sample to Earth, as it continues to look for new technologies needed to eventually send humans to the Red Planet.
In the afterglow of its successful Mars Curiosity mission, the space agency released a list of options this week for expanding exploration of Mars. The Mars Program Planning Group’s recommendations also take in account likely budget restrictions that will limit the space agency’s options for continuing planetary exploration. That could mean NASA will initially send more affordable orbiting spacecraft to Mars and fewer relatively expensive rovers that cost more than $1 billion. Curiosity’s price tag was $2.5 billion.
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The Obama administration has said it wants to send humans to Mars by the mid-2030s.
For now, one goal is finding a way to return to Earth a soil sample from the Martian surface, perhaps using a combination of an unmanned rover, orbiting spacecraft and astronauts. The planning group concluded in a report released Tuesday (Sept. 25) that the “return of samples to beyond Earth orbit to be recovered by astronauts offers and early intersection of robotic and human flight programs, as capability is developed for human surface exploration of Mars.”
The Curiosity rover's robotic arm probes a Mars rock. The next step could be returning a Mars sample to Earth. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions,
emphasized the early success of Curiosity along with two upcoming Mars
missions. The first, next year’s Maven mission
, will study the Martian
, scheduled to launch in 2016, will for the first
time study the interior of another planet.