As Curiosity digs its treads into Mars' dusty surface, NASA is already moving ahead with plans for its next mission to the Red Planet. In front of 18,000 researchers Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, the space agency enthusiastically announced plans for a new billion-dollar rover that it hopes to launch in 2020. Here's what we know about the new mission so far:
What will the new rover do?
NASA didn't say specifically, but it's assumed that it will continue the hunt for microbial life on the Red Planet. The new space lab will be based on the same architecture as the SUV-sized Curiosity and will be partially composed of spare parts from previous Mars rovers. And it's not the only big plan for Mars: If everything goes as planned, "NASA hopes to put astronauts in orbit around Mars by the 2030s, per the wishes of President Obama," says Casey Johnston at Ars Technica.
How much will the new rover cost?
Reflecting a tighter budget at NASA, the new rover is estimated to cost $1.5 billion — cheaper than Curiosity mission's $2.5 billion price tag — savings that will be achieved by basing the new project on a lot of the same research and development, and utilizing leftover equipment. Still, the rover promises a "shot in the arm" for the local economy around NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank). The Curiosity mission generated 3,000 JPL staff jobs and 4,000 positions for outside contractors. "The challenge to restructure the Mars Exploration Program has turned from seven minutes of terror for the Curiosity landing to the start of seven years of innovation," said NASA science chief John Grunsfeld, referring to the Curiosity's precarious touchdown and the new mission's 2020 launch target.
What will it be called?
That's yet to be determined.
And will this change Curiosity's mission?
No. In fact, it's been extended. Curiosity's mission was only projected to last for two years, but "we've already decided with this plan that we will continue to operate Curiosity as long as it's scientifically viable," said Grunsfeld. "And that could be a long time." It's possible that Curiosity could still be running when this new rover touches down.