NASA to exchange 'flagship' missions for small-ball projects (+video)
NASA is drastically scaling back its Mars exploration initiatives in exchange for smaller, more efficient missions, agency officials say.
NASA is fundamentally overhauling its Mars exploration strategy, ditching multibillion-dollar "flagship" missions in favor of cheaper, more efficient projects for now, agency officials announced Monday (Feb. 13).Skip to next paragraph
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The decision is a response to diminished funding for robotic exploration going forward. In his federal budget request for next year, which was revealed Monday (Feb. 13), President Barack Obama allocated $1.2 billion to NASA's planetary science programs — a 20 percent cut from the current allotment of $1.5 billion, with further reductions expected over the next several years.
The cut is spurring a shift in NASA thinking about the best way to study Mars in the near term. This shift compels the agency to withdraw from the European-led ExoMars missions, which aim to launch an orbiter and a drill-toting rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
"Instead, we will develop an integrated strategy to ensure that the next steps for Mars exploration will support science as well as human exploration goals, and potentially take advantage of the 2018-2020 exploration window," NASA chief Charlie Bolden told reporters. "The budget provides support for this new approach." [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]
No more flagships, for now
The new direction does not imperil NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which will drop the 1-ton Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface this August to investigate if the Red Planet can, or ever did, support microbial life.
Nor does it affect the $485 million MAVEN mission, due to launch in late 2013 to study Mars' upper atmosphere and gather information about how the Red Planet's climate has changed over time.
However, NASA's new strategy acknowledges that the agency won't be launching ambitious, expensive "flagship" missions like MSL toward the Red Planet — or any other solar system body — anytime soon.
"A flagship mission in not on the table," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science. "We're looking at building a moderate mission, and it's a partnership looking at synergies between the requirements of human spaceflight, science and the needs to demonstrate technologies that advance other missions in the future."
It makes sense to set up such partnerships, beyond simply spreading costs around the various branches of NASA, agency officials said. NASA has both science and exploration goals at Mars, after all; Obama has tasked the agency with getting humans to the Red Planet by the mid-2030s.
Bolden said details of the new Mars strategy should be worked out in a matter of months. The goal is to be ready to launch a mission by 2018 and/or 2020, to take advantage of favorable alignments between Earth and the Red Planet.