The news about the Mars Rover Curiosity mission that opened this week were much less exciting for the audience than rumors about it. Nevertheless, Curiosity has certainly revived people’s attention to the red planet and now NASA has announced a really interesting long-term plan that could culminate with sending astronauts, although only after 2030.
The plans for a manned mission are still very vague, on the contrary, there are some even very specific programs to send more space probes to Mars. The biggest challenge for NASA in recent years has been to stay within its allocated budget. Some projects have been scaled back, others radically restructured but the Obama administration is committed to support the exploration of Mars so for the rest of this decade some new missions have been scheduled.
They’ll start next year with the launch of the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft. Part of the Mars Scout program, which aims to produce spacecraft smaller and cheaper than earlier generations, this probe was announced in 2008. Its purpose is to study the Mars atmosphere in order to understand its evolution over time, the status of its various layers and deepen our knowledge of the elements that compose it at isotopic level.
For 2016 the mission InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) scheduled to launch, consisting of a lander that should use a seismometer and a heat sensor to study Mars internal structure. The goal is to better understand the formation of the red planet and its geological evolution. This information should provide new clues on the formation of rocky planets, including Earth.
In the coming years there will be a collaboration with the ESA ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission. Originally, NASA and ESA were supposed to develop together the Trace Gas Orbiter and a rover, which are the two spacecraft that compose the mission. Due to budget cuts, in early 2012 NASA decided tu pull out of the mission development but will still provide some instruments. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has basically replaced NASA in the ExoMars mission, which therefore became an international collaboration as only the International Space Station has been before. According to the plans, the Trace Gas Orbiter is to be launched in 2016 and the ExoMars rover in 2018.
A more ambitious project is to send a new rover on Mars in 2020. The basis is the Mars Rover Curiosity, starting with its landing system, which has proven to work. This will significantly cut development costs along with some components that have been built as spare part for Curiosity to be used in case of problems during its testing.
We’ll see how the plans to send astronauts to Mars will be developed. A few days ago came news, though a bit vague, of Chinese plans to build a small closed ecosystem to be used in extraterrestrial bases on the Moon or Mars. We know that the Chinese say little but their announcements must be taken seriously. In the next few years a new space race could start with China determined to win.