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What will future Mars missions look like?

Following the successful landing of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, amid deep budget cuts the agency is drafting a 20-year plan for the Red Planet.  

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“You’ll see that in this Mars Program Planning Group output,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

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“They are looking at mixing technology with increasing capability over time … leading up to putting larger things on the surface,” Grunsfeld said. Adopting those technologies would help put objects even larger than the 1-ton Curiosity rover on Mars, he told

Less expensive Mars probes are also on NASA’s agenda.

And there’s no lack of ideas. Gliders and balloons, ground-thumping penetrators, deep drilling platforms, slinky robot snakes, and even sensor-laden tumbleweed-like vehicles are on the table. Toss into the mix an assortment of Mars orbiters to perform a variety of tasks, such as sniffing out traces of biologically produced methane.

No gimmicks on Mars

“It can’t just be a gimmicky thing,” Doug McCuistion, director of the NASA Mars Exploration Program, told “This is — and needs to remain — a scientifically driven program. So anything that comes out of Orlando’s Mars Program Planning Group I will expect to be scientifically and technologically viable and useful.”

McCuistion said the group is to provide pathways or portfolios with mission and technology options that can be adjusted, manipulated and sequenced differently based on programmatic factors as well as budgetary factors.

“So I’m expecting it to provide us some flexibility for planning. Lots of options, lots of ideas, lots of possibilities … all of which have feasibility that we can use to build the next portfolio set,” McCuistion said.

Seeking the signs of life

The goal is to establish a plan with a 20-year horizon, McCuistion added.

“We’re thinking into the early 2030s … partly because President Obama’s challenge was humans in the area of Mars in 2033. So we’re kind of using that as an anchor point to plan backwards from.

“The entire Mars science community is at that point of taking that next step,” McCuistion said. “The Mars Science Laboratory transitions us from 'Follow the water' to seeking the signs of life … so that’s where we are headed.”

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for since 1999.

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