On August 5, the planetary science community breathed a sigh of relief when Curiosity made a perfect landing on Mars. With a new, healthy, and extremely capable rover on the surface of Mars, new discoveries are expected to continue to flow from Mars for years to come, and the USGS will be closely involved. However, recently there have been many questions raised about the future of Mars exploration and what role the USGS will play.
It is not easy or cheap to place a one-ton roving laboratory on the surface of another planet. Curiosity’s total cost of about $2.5 billion is inline with other “flagship” scale planetary missions. In the White House’s 2013 budget request, funding for planetary science was reduced by 20% and the Mars program in particular was singled out for a 38% reduction. Another flagship mission to Mars simply cannot fit within such a budget, even though such a mission was identified as the highest priority mission for the coming decade by the National Research Council’s planetary decadal survey, released in the spring of 2011.
Of course, the budget request is not the final budget. The proposed cuts to the planetary program caused a significant outcry from the public and the scientists and engineers involved in planetary missions, and the final budget defined by Congress is likely to be different from what was proposed.
Still, uncertainty alone can have real repercussions on missions the USGS is involved with. Due largely to the funding uncertainties NASA has backed out of its commitment to participate in two planned Mars missions with the European Space Agency. These were an orbiter to study the Martian atmosphere that was to launch in 2016 and a sophisticated sample caching rover in 2018.
So what, then, does the future of Mars exploration look like? Curiosity is by no means the end of the road. In the excitement over Curiosity’s successful landing it is easy to overlook the fact that we have another rover on Mars that is still operating! Opportunity is continuing its exploration of Endeavor crater more than 8 years after it originally touched down, and USGS scientists are still involved in the day-to-day operations and interpreting the data from Meridiani Planum.
And of course there are the orbiters Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, continuing to return fantastic images and other data. Along with the European Mars Express orbiter, these assets allow our exploration to encompass the entire Mars globe. USGS scientists use data from these orbiters to map Mars, investigate landing sites, and do geology on the Red Planet.
There are also two more NASA Mars missions being built. The first is MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission), which will study the martian atmosphere to determine how it has evolved over time. MAVEN launched in November 2013 and arrives in orbit around Mars the following year. With no link to geology or surveying, it is unlikely the USGS will be involved in this mission.
In August of 2012 NASA announced that the InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission had been selected as the next Discovery-class mission, with a projected launch date of March 2016. The InSight lander will measure the seismic activity, heat flow, and rotation rate of Mars. The USGS has played an important role in selecting the landing site for missions to the martian surface, and the landing site selection process for InSight will likely continue the trend.
Launch opportunities for missions to Mars occur about every two years, so after InSight, the next opportunity is in 2018. The expected planetary budget is not large enough to support a large lander or rover, but NASA has started the process of defining a 2018 mission in the roughly $700 million range that will both advance the goal of Mars sample return and prove technologies that will be needed for future human missions in the vicinity of Mars. The USGS, along with the rest of the planetary science community, provides information to the committee in charge of this challenging effort. A formal decision from NASA about the plan for 2018 and beyond probably will not be announced until early 2013.
In short, there is uncertainty but the US continues to have an exciting Mars exploration program and the USGS continues to play a major role in it.