David Zax

A View from David Zax

NASA Announces Curiosity’s Child

Looking forward to a new Mars rover.

  • December 5, 2012

NASA has its sights on Mars, as the recent landing of the rover Curiosity has already made vibrantly clear (see “Photo Essay: Curiosity’s Mission to Mars”). NASA announced that the “robust Mars exploration program” to which the Obama administration has committed now will include another robotic science rover–Curiosity’s child, call it–that will launch in 2020.

“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,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

NASA doesn’t have too much to say about the next rover, in the way of how it might differ technologically from Curiosity. Fundamentally, says NASA, “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 this summer.” After all, that landing went off without a hitch. No need to reinvent the wheel–or, in this case, the robotic rover that you send into outer space to land on Mars.

NASA is cutely–and rightly–proud of Curiosity. Like parents posting pictures of their child’s first steps to Facebook, NASA recently uploaded to YouTube an animation recreating Curiosity’s first encounter with touching a Martian rock.

Adorable!

The most interesting technological innovations to come here may be the science instruments that will be aboard the 2020 rover, rather than the rover itself. “The specific payload and science instruments…will be openly competed.” Before that competition comes, though, a scientific team will outline objectives for the mission.

Space missions are always an opportunity for technological innovations of all sorts, some of which can later trickle down into other sectors. One of the most interesting features of the Curiosity robot is its power source: nuclear generators. Prior Mars missions relied on solar panels, but dust build-up and short winter days impeded those earlier rovers, as Martin LaMonica reported in TR in August (see “Nuclear generator powers Curiosity Mars mission”).

Curiosity’s cousin is just one element in a portfolio of Martian efforts on the part of NASA. Next year, for instance, NASA will launch the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvoluioN” (or “MAVEN”) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere; it’s also planning something it’s calling the “InSight” missions, which will look into the deep interior of Mars. It’s also supporting efforts on the part of the European Space Agency (ESA), which is building its ExoMars rover, which should launch in 2018. That rover, points out IEEE Spectrum, will be a tad smaller than Curiosity, but will include a core drill that can take soil samples up to two meters deep.

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