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Future Mars rover mission could rely on new supersonic parachutes, atomic clocks (+video)

As NASA's planetary exploration budget is squeezed, NASA scientists are finding new ways to lower the costs of future Mars rover missions.

By Rob Coppinger, SPACE.com ContributorSpace.com / July 16, 2012

A mockup of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover gets its wheels dirty in sand dunes near California's Death Valley in early May 2012.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Farnborough, England

A possible rover mission to Mars within the next eight years may rely on a larger parachutes, atomic clocks and inflatable decelerators, NASA's Mars exploration chief says.

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This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.

With a large NASA rover only weeks away from arriving at the Red Planet, NASA's Doug McCuistion outlined ideas for another, far less expensive Martian mission in 2018 or 2020.

The inflatable decelerators, also known as ballutes, and big parachutes would help the spacecraft reduce its speed through the Martian atmosphere, while the atomic clocks would improve its landing accuracy, McCuistion announced Tuesday (July 10) at the Farnborough International Airshow here.

NASA expects to have up to $800 million to spend on the mission. That's a far cry from the $2.5 billion the agency is spending on its 1-ton Curiosity rover, which is due to land on the Red Planet Aug. 5.

"That price point [$800 million] is frankly around the point of a Discovery mission," McCuistion told SPACE.com. "Those missions tend to be characterized by simple systems, not too challenging." [The Best (And Worst) Mars Landings in History]

McCuisition added that he likely won’t have the budget to fund the ballutes, parachutes and atomic clocks. Instead, NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist probably would pay for them.

For its Mars missions NASA is still using parachutes based on the design of the 1970s Viking landers. Those old-school chutes are 69 feet (21 meters) wide; the 2018 or 2020 mission would employ a 98-foot-wide (30 m) chute with a design that produces far more drag.

Working within the budget

The lower price tag for a 2018 or 2020 mission reflects NASA's efforts to find a way forward in tough fiscal times. President Barack Obama's proposed 2013 federal budget, which was released in February, slashes NASA planetary science funding by 20 percent, with much of that coming out of the Mars program.

The cuts led NASA to withdraw from the European Space Agency-led ExoMars mission, which aims to send an orbiter and rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

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