A group established by NASA earlier this year to develop options for future exploration of the Red Planet will deliver its final report to NASA by month’s end, the head of NASA’s overall Mars exploration program said Thursday.
Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said at a press conference at JPL that the Mars Program Planning Group would deliver a final report to NASA in “viewgraph” form this month, after which it will be released to the public. “We are putting together a schedule for when we go public with report. It will be a public report,” he said. That release will also be coordinated with briefings of people at the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in the Mars science community, he said.
The group, established earlier this year by NASA in response to a decision by the Obama Administration to terminate NASA participation in ESA’s ExoMars program, has been evaluating options for missions in the 2018 and 2020 launch opportunities. One challenge has been the constrained budgets in the current projections by the administration. “The budget in ’18 is thin,” McCuistion said. “It probably can’t support a rover or a lander. However, a rover is the next logical step after MSL,” a reference to the Mars Science Laboratory mission arriving at Mars Sunday night. On the other hand, he said an orbiter could help maintain the communications infrastructure around Mars needed to provide detailed telemetry for future lander/rover missions during their critical entry, descent, and landing phases.
A presentation by the group to the NASA Advisory Council last month offers some additional insights into what the group is considering. “Current Rover options not credible for 2018 within budget constraints,” the presentation notes (page 7). On the next slide, it shows a pathway of mission options, with a recommendation to pursue one titled “Seeking Signs of Ancient Life”, which does call for some kind of sample return mission. The presentation includes several concepts for future rover mission, derived from both MSL and the earlier Mars Exploration Rovers (better known as Spirit and Opportunity) to cache samples and perform other science in advance of future sample return missions.
Once NASA gets the group’s report, McCuistion said, it will make decisions about future missions. “When we are public with that will depend on how it takes us to come up with that as well as the discussion internally, within the agency and within the Executive Office of the President, since it will all fit into 2014 budget process.”