New NASA rover targeting 2020 landing on Mars

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2003: Mars makes its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years, passing 34,646,418 miles distant.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA unveiled a new budget-driven plan for the U.S. robotic exploration of Mars on Tuesday that calls for sending another rover there in 2020, Local 6 news partner Florida Today reports.

But the holy grail of solar system science – a mission to return Mars soil samples to Earth for extensive examination – appears to be off for at least a decade because of U.S. spending cuts.

Still, NASA officials said the Obama Administration remains committed to "a robust Mars exploration program."

The new multi-year Mars plan will ensure "America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s."

The Obama Administration has directed NASA to develop new rockets and spacecraft for deep space missions by about 2020, send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and a human expedition to the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s.

But the president's proposed NASA budget for fiscal year 2013 would cut planetary science by 20 percent and robotic Mars exploration by 40 percent.

Planetary science funding would fall to $1.2 billion in 2013 from $1.5 billion in 2012. Further reductions would follow.

Money for robotic Mars exploration would drop from $587 million in 2012 to $360 million in 2013 and $187 million in 2015.

The outlook forced NASA to abandon joint U.S.-European Mars missions planned for the years 2016 and 2018.

NASA in 2009 agreed to ante up $1.4 billion for the missions. The European Space Agency's contribution was set at $1.2 billion.

Then in February, the U.S. reneged on its obligations. NASA pulled out of the project. In March, the Europeans partnered with the Russian Federal Space Agency. The Russians agreed to provide Proton rockets to launch the missions.

"There's no doubt that tough choices had to be made," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the time.

The new plan appears to restore at least minor U.S. participation in the 2016 and 2018 European Mars missions.

The U.S. will provide telecommunications radios for a methane-sniffing Martian orbiter that will launch on a Russian rocket in 2016.

Then the Russians, who joined the European program after the U.S. backed out, will launch a large rover equipped to search for signs of primitive life in 2018.

The U.S. will provide "a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument" on the rover.

The new U.S. Mars plan also calls for:

• Continued operations of the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers now on Mars.

• The already scheduled launch of an American orbiter with methane-detection devices in 2013.

• An already selected stationary lander that will perform a seismic study of the Martian interior after its launch in 2016.

• A new rover, based on the architecture of the car-sized Curiosity, to be launched in 2020.

Getting to Mars is hard. Current rocketry limits opportunities to three-week windows every 26 months, when Earth and Mars align in a way that makes voyages possible.

The 2020 rover mission "fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budgets, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity," said former astronaut John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist who now is NASA's Associate Administrator for its Science Mission Directorate.

The payloads and science instruments to be carried to Mars by the 2020 rover still are up in the air.

NASA officials say the restructured Mars program plan will advance the science priorities of the National Research Council's 2011 Planetary Decadal Survey.

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