Last week, to the surprise of many, NASA announced it would launch in 2020 a Mars rover based on the Curiosity spacecraft currently exploring the Martian surface. While NASA was studying options for a mission either the 2018 or 2020 launch windows, based on the options developed by the Mars Program Planning Group earlier this year after NASA terminated its cooperation with ESA on ExoMars, the timing in particular was unexpected since a decision was thought to be deferred to the release of the fiscal year 2014 budget proposal in February. John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said last week that the decision on the 2020 rover had been cleared with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
The decision did get some immediate Congressional support. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes JPL, said he was “pleased” with the decision in a statement his office released just a couple hours after Grunsfeld announced the 2020 rover mission in a talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. Schiff, though, wasn’t settling for a 2020 mission. “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,” he said, adding that he would work with NASA, Congress, and the White House to try and advance the mission to the earlier launch window. (Grunsfeld, in a press conference a few hours after the announcement, said that getting the rover done for the 2020 launch window was challenging enough.)
The mission also got an endorsement from Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), whose district in the next Congress includes most of Pasadena. “After facing a nearly 40% cut earlier this year, we have now won an important victory – it’s [sic] future is secure,” she said in a statement, referring to NASA’s Mars exploration program. “I am going to fight to make sure we get the most out of this mission.”
Missed in the Congressional and other praise about NASA’s decision (as well as some dissent from other planetary scientists who would prefer to fund other planetary missions, such as one to Jupiter’s moon Europa) is the fact that the selection of this rover mission is, in effect, a return to a Mars sample return architecture the administration has rejected just earlier this year. As an insider familiar with the development of NASA’s Mars exploration program notes in this week’s The Space Review, the rover is most likely going to have the ability to cache samples for later return to Earth, just as the original 2018 ExoMars rover mission was intended to do. (Grunsfeld said that a decision on whether the rover will collect samples would be made by a science definition team, but that team would be “front-loaded” with scientists who supported that.) Such a mission would also aligned with the planetary science decadal survey last year, which picked a Mars rover to cache samples as its highest priority flagship-class mission.