NASA announced Tuesday that a new robotic project will land on Mars in 2020.
The agency has committed to the exploration program has had recent success with the landing of Curiosity and Opportunity rovers.
"The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a prepared statement. "With this next mission, we're ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s."
Over the past year, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff has worked with the planetary science community and his congressional colleagues to urge NASA to reconsider its cuts to the Mars Program.
“I am pleased that NASA has announced the next steps in its robotic exploration of Mars, namely the launch of a Curiosity-class rover to the Martian surface in 2020,” said Rep. Schiff in a prepared statement.
“In its few short months on Mars, Curiosity has broadened our understanding of our planetary neighbor, and the findings announced thus far point to even greater discoveries as Curiosity continues to explore Gale Crater and Mount Sharp. An upgraded rover with additional instrumentation and capabilities is a logical next step that builds upon now proven landing and surface operations systems," he said.
The plan to design and build a new Mars robotic science rover with a launch in 2020 comes only months after the agency announced InSight, which will launch in 2016, bringing a total of seven NASA missions operating or being planned to study and explore our Earth-like neighbor.
The 2020 mission will constitute another step toward responding to high-priority science goals and the president's challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s.
“While a 2020 launch would be favorable due to the alignment of Earth and Mars, a launch in 2018 would be even more advantageous as it would allow for an even greater payload to be launched to Mars. I will be working with NASA, the White House and my colleagues in Congress to see whether advancing the launch date is possible and what it would entail,” Schiff said.
Two NASA spacecraft and contributions to one European spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars; the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere; the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars; and participation in ESA's 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 mission and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.
The future rover development and design will be based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) architecture that successfully carried the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface in August, according to NASA. This will ensure mission costs and risks are as low as possible, while still delivering a highly capable rover with a proven landing system.
The mission will advance the science priorities of the National Research Council's 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey and responds to the findings of the Mars Program Planning Group established earlier this year to assist NASA in restructuring its Mars Exploration Program.
"The challenge to restructure the Mars Exploration Program has turned from the seven minutes of terror for the Curiosity landing to the start of seven years of innovation," said NASA's associate administrator for science and astronaut John Grunsfeld.
"This mission concept fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity," he said.
The specific payload and science instruments for the 2020 mission will be openly competed, following the Science Mission Directorate's established processes for instrument selection. This process will begin with the establishment of a science definition team that will be tasked to outline the scientific objectives for the mission.
This mission fits within the five-year budget plan in the president's Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, and is contingent on future appropriations.
Plans also will include opportunities for infusing new capabilities developed through investments by NASA's Space Technology Program, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and contributions from international partners.