Months after NASA pulled out of the European-led ExoMars program, a panel appointed by the U.S. space agency today suggested a number of options for exploring Mars in the next decade and beyond.
All of the panel's recommendations would result in bringing back samples of martian soil as part of a search for signatures of life on the Red Planet. Collecting and returning samples was ranked as a top priority in the 2010 Planetary Science Decadal Survey by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies.
The Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), which includes both NASA officials and outside scientists, was created in March 2012, shortly after NASA announced that it would no longer participate in ExoMars. John Grunsfeld, the new head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said then that NASA wanted to develop a scientific program that would pave the way for a human landing on Mars by the mid-2030s.
MPPG's summary report, presented in a media teleconference this afternoon, provides the options for getting to that goal. One option would be to combine a 2018 Mars orbiter mission, meeting NASA's stipulation that it cost no more than $800 million, with a follow-up rover that would help return martian soil. Another approach, the report says, would be to skip the orbiter and send a rover to Mars in 2020 to collect samples that would later be retrieved. The report lays out various alternatives for the number of launches needed to bring back samples, including the kinds of rovers that would be best suited for the different options.
Grunsfeld would not say when NASA plans to choose between the various options. "It will take some time," he said during the teleconference. However, he admitted that the agency would have to move quickly if it wanted to pursue the 2018 orbiter mission, because that would require requesting funds for the mission in the 2014 budget request now being sent to the White House. The planning group is expected to submit its full report on the options by mid- to late October.