Image: Mars scenario
Arizona State University/Ron Miller
Subsurface ice on Mars, exposed to sunlight, boils off in clouds of water vapor, after an impactor probe struck the surface. The scenario is one proposed by Arizona State University's THOR mission.
By
updated 8/13/2012 8:34:35 PM ET 2012-08-14T00:34:35

As NASA’s Curiosity rover prepares to get its wheels in motion on Mars, the space agency is set to issue a new look at where exploration of the Red Planet could go in the years and decades to come — based on the theme "Seeking the Signs of Life."

The report, stemming from a Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration meeting in Houston in June, is headed for a late August/September release. Former veteran NASA program manager Orlando Figueroa has been leading the appraisal under the wing of a newly established Mars Program Planning Group which was tasked with reformulating the agency’s Mars Exploration Program.

The planning group is taking a look at how NASA will continue exploring Mars beyond the missions currently operating today, which now includes the Curiosity rover. The $2.5 billion Mars rover Curiosity landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5 (PDT) in a flawless touchdown. The flagship rover, which is already beaming home amazing photos of Mars, is expected to spend two years exploring Mars' Gale Crater to determine if the region could have ever supported microbial life.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

Recently, deep cuts in NASA's budget for Mars led to the shakeup in the space agency’s plans for robotic exploration. Another factor behind the new report is the overlapping requirements of NASA’s long-range plan to dot the Red Planet with human footprints.

Deep budget cuts, new tech
Mars planners are assessing international partnerships that could be highly enabling, especially as exploration activities become increasingly complex. Such partnerships could be at the mission or instrument level, and they could involve scientists from around the globe. [ Boldest Mars Missions in History ]

The June get-together of Mars experts made a strong case that missions flown in the coming decade could yield realistic steps toward Mars Sample Return. That pathway also would push advances in our understanding of Mars and certify key technologies that can lead to a humans-to-Mars initiative.

For example, work is under way to develop inflatable heat shields and larger parachutes.

“These will be tested in a program about a year from now,” said Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory here.

“You’ll see that in this Mars Program Planning Group output,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

“They are looking at mixing technology with increasing capability over time … leading up to putting larger things on the surface,” Grunsfeld said. Adopting those technologies would help put objects even larger than the 1-ton Curiosity rover on Mars, he told SPACE.com.

Less expensive Mars probes are also on NASA’s agenda.

And there’s no lack of ideas. Gliders and balloons, ground-thumping penetrators, deep drilling platforms, slinky robot snakes, and even sensor-laden tumbleweed-like vehicles are on the table. Toss into the mix an assortment of Mars orbiters to perform a variety of tasks, such as sniffing out traces of biologically produced methane.

No gimmicks on Mars
“It can’t just be a gimmicky thing,” Doug McCuistion, director of the NASA Mars Exploration Program, told SPACE.com. “This is — and needs to remain — a scientifically driven program. So anything that comes out of Orlando’s Mars Program Planning Group I will expect to be scientifically and technologically viable and useful.”

McCuistion said the group is to provide pathways or portfolios with mission and technology options that can be adjusted, manipulated and sequenced differently based on programmatic factors as well as budgetary factors.

“So I’m expecting it to provide us some flexibility for planning. Lots of options, lots of ideas, lots of possibilities … all of which have feasibility that we can use to build the next portfolio set,” McCuistion said.

Seeking the signs of life
The goal is to establish a plan with a 20-year horizon, McCuistion added.

“We’re thinking into the early 2030s … partly because President Obama’s challenge was humans in the area of Mars in 2033. So we’re kind of using that as an anchor point to plan backwards from.

“The entire Mars science community is at that point of taking that next step,” McCuistion said. “The Mars Science Laboratory transitions us from 'Follow the water' to seeking the signs of life … so that’s where we are headed.”

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  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
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments