After 6 months of intensive study, NASA today unveiled its revamped Mars exploration plan. The new strategy calls for launching a series of rovers and orbiters to the Red Planet, but on a much slower timetable than the previous Mars program, which ended prematurely with the 1999 losses of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Polar Lander (ScienceNOW, 23 September 1999 and 6 December 1999 ).
The new plan will be flexible and "science-, not mission-driven," NASA's space science chief Ed Weiler told reporters at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. It will kick off with an orbiter in 2001, to be followed in 2003 by twin rovers that will land at different sites and wander nearly a kilometer. In 2005, a large orbiter with high-resolution cameras will provide pictures of rocks down to the size of beach balls.
Two years later, another "smart lander," possibly carrying drills and tools to analyze rocks, will take off for Mars. A new line of explorers--an airplane or perhaps a balloon--may also examine the surface more carefully. Also in 2007, a joint U.S.-Italian communications satellite may be launched to help transmit data from future missions back to Earth.
Another large orbiter carrying a sophisticated radar will follow in 2009--possibly also in collaboration with Italy. A series of sample-return missions--which will bring martian rocks back to Earth for study--is now slated to follow after 2010, rather than in 2008 as previously planned. The delay will allow NASA managers to incorporate new scientific and technological discoveries into the missions. Says Scott Hubbard, Mars program chief: "This is a program, not just a collection of projects." The agency intends to spend $400 million to $450 million each year for the next 5 years to get the effort off the ground.