Image: A mockup of NASA's Curiosity Mars
A mockup of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover gets its wheels dirty in sand dunes near California's Death Valley in early May 2012.
updated 7/16/2012 3:54:01 PM ET 2012-07-16T19:54:01

A possible rover mission to Mars within the next eight years may rely on a larger parachutes, atomic clocks and inflatable decelerators, NASA's Mars exploration chief says.

With a large NASA rover only weeks away from arriving at the Red Planet, NASA's Doug McCuistion outlined ideas for another, far less expensive Martian mission in 2018 or 2020.

The inflatable decelerators, also known as ballutes, and big parachutes would help the spacecraft reduce its speed through the Martian atmosphere, while the atomic clocks would improve its landing accuracy, McCuistion announced Tuesday (July 10) at the Farnborough International Airshow here.

NASA expects to have up to $800 million to spend on the mission. That's a far cry from the $2.5 billion the agency is spending on its 1-ton Curiosity rover, which is due to land on the Red Planet Aug. 5.

"That price point [$800 million] is frankly around the point of a Discovery mission," McCuistion told "Those missions tend to be characterized by simple systems, not too challenging." [ The Best (And Worst) Mars Landings in History ]

McCuisition added that he likely won’t have the budget to fund the ballutes, parachutes and atomic clocks. Instead, NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist probably would pay for them.

For its Mars missions NASA is still using parachutes based on the design of the 1970s Viking landers. Those old-school chutes are 69 feet (21 meters) wide; the 2018 or 2020 mission would employ a 98-foot-wide (30 m) chute with a design that produces far more drag.

Working within the budget
The lower price tag for a 2018 or 2020 mission reflects NASA's efforts to find a way forward in tough fiscal times. President Barack Obama's proposed 2013 federal budget, which was released in February, slashes NASA planetary science funding by 20 percent, with much of that coming out of the Mars program.

The cuts led NASA to withdraw from the European Space Agency-led ExoMars mission, which aims to send an orbiter and rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

In response to its new budget situation, NASA asked scientists for ideas on how to explore Mars on the cheap. The most promising of these proposals were presented at a workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston in late June.

The workshop’s final report, with recommendations, is to be delivered to NASA by the end of August. However, the report summarizing the workshop’s findings is now available on the LPI website.

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The report describes several possible scenarios for a 2018 or 2020 mission, including a lander or a rover similar to the twins Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January 2004 and exceeded all mission expectations.

The summary also states that workshop participants saw value in early international involvement in whatever mission is chosen. They also expected that technology advances will deliver instruments that can meet scientists' goals while on the sort of rover or fixed station that NASA has already sent to the Red Planet.

McCuistion will use the workshop's final report in his 2014 budget submission, which he will deliver to the administration later this year.

Planning for 2018 (or 2020)
NASA has yet to decide if it will send a rover, lander or orbiter to Mars later this decade, and its decision will be guided by its long-term goals of a Martian sample-return mission and a human flight to the Red Planet, officials have said.

NASA’s next Mars mission, MAVEN (for Mars Atmosphere Volatile Evolution), involves an atmosphere-analyzing orbiter slated to arrive in 2015. If the 2018 or 2020 mission is another orbiter, it could use new laser communications systems.

Curiosity is to be lowered to the Martian surface on cables by a rocket-powered sky crane. Such a system could be used to enable human missions to the Red Planet, McCuistion said.

A sky crane in combination with a surface beacon could deliver 2,200 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of cargo to within a few hundred yards of a target location, he said.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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