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NASA to launch Mars rover in 2020, use Curiosity's spare parts

Plan would include funds from the president's 2013 budget. The mission is expected to cost $1.5 billion.

  • Curiosity was developed, built and assembled at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. Here, scientists inspect the rover in JPL's Clean Room. JPL is expected to lead the operation on NASA's new rover mission.
Curiosity was developed, built and assembled at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory… (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer )
December 05, 2012|By Tiffany Kelly, tiffany.kelly@latimes.com

NASA will send another rover to Mars in 2020, using spare parts from Curiosity and the infamous “seven minutes of terror” landing sequence developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers for Curiosity’s August arrival on the Red Planet.

Officials estimate the new mission will cost $1.5 billion.

The plan includes extended mission funding for Curiosity and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with funds already included in President Obama’s 2013 budget, said John Grunsfeld, head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Grunsfeld announced the news Tuesday at an American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

“We’ve got lots of budget issues,” Grunsfeld said, adding that the new Mars plans “fit within the president’s budget request for 2013. It’s the availability of the spare parts, but also the people and the engineering that went into building Curiosity that we still have.”

Curiosity began its two-year mission after it landed on Mars Aug. 5, but officials predict it will live past 2014. Its predecessor, Opportunity, has been at work on the planet since 2004.

“We will continue to operate Curiosity as long as it’s scientifically viable, and that could be a long time,” said Grunsfeld.

JPL manages both active rover missions and is expected to take charge of the new robot.

“That is clearly what I think what NASA would do,” said Fuk Li, director of the Mars Exploration Directorate at JPL.

Li said he “seriously doubts” that another NASA center would lead the operation.

In the weeks leading up to Curiosity’s harrowing landing, which included the first time use of a “sky crane” and 100-pound supersonic parachute, officials didn’t have any future missions planned to the Red Planet. The mission has gone more smoothly than scientists had planned; the rover sent back its first soil sample analysis last month.

The new rover will function and even look like Curiosity. As planning begins, engineers will take inventory of available spare parts, then order and build new pieces.

NASA has a goal of collecting more soil samples from Mars — and perhaps bringing some back to Earth — before sending astronauts to circle around the planet in the 2030s.

After NASA forms the science team for the next rover, the debate on where to land will begin. Curiosity’s landing site, the Gale Crater, was picked over three other options. Scientists may consider those alternatives for the next rover mission, or look for new spots to roam.

Grunsfeld said the 2021 landing date allows scientists to pick more interesting locations due to the alignment of Earth and Mars. He also called the scheduled 2020 launch and 2021 landing “aggressive” while Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said that he would fight for a launch two years earlier.

A new rover mission will stimulate the local economy and “provide new reason for optimism among the broad JPL family that their important work will go on in the future, and planetary science is once again on a more firm foundation,” Schiff said in a statement.

The new rover would bring the total number of planned or current NASA Mars missions to seven. Active on the planet now are the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers and the Reconnaissance and Odyssey orbiters. In mid-August NASA announced the 2016 InSight mission, which will send a lander to dig into the planet’s core. The MAVEN orbiter will launch next year and study weather on Mars, eventually becoming a communication link.

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Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ or on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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