WASHINGTON — As NASA gears up a decade-long effort to return samples from Mars, some scientists are worried that the campaign may not leave any funding available for other robotic missions to the planet.
The only future NASA mission to Mars under development is Mars 2020, a rover currently in the final stages of assembly and scheduled to launch in July 2020. The rover, based on the Curiosity rover that has been on Mars for seven years, will cache Martian rock and soil samples for later return to Earth.
While NASA hasn’t formally committed to the additional missions needed to retrieve the samples and return them to Earth, both NASA and the European Space Agency have started planning for them. That approach includes a NASA-led mission to land on Mars, fetch the samples and launch them into orbit around the planet, and an ESA-led mission to grab the sample container in orbit and return it to Earth. Both missions would launch in 2026, returning the samples in 2031.
But as attendees of a meeting last month of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) in Pasadena, California, noted, there are virtually no other Mars robotic missions being developed. The only ...