Having concluded that the Mars Science Laboratory has already answered the key question it was sent to explore, i.e. that Mars did once host conditions which were suitable for life, even as it only now embarking on its trek to Mt. Sharp, NASA hosted a Telecon today to discuss its Science Definition Team report for the proposed next Mars rover mission, scheduled for launch in 2020.
Re-using the chassis for the current Mars Curiosity but equipped with a suite of new instruments, the 2020 mission would focus on the assessing the quality of samples for signs of past life, and be based around a coring tool, which would prepare a set of samples to be cached aboard the rover for possible retrieval on a later sample return mission.
The general consensus appears to be that while it is (remotely) possible that life exists on Mars today, the highest payoff approach is to search for samples which may have been preserved in the geological record from past periods in the planet’s history when it was both warmer and wetter than it is today. Consequently, the mission is not being billed as a search for life per se, but rather as a sample acquisition and caching effort which could yield interesting results.
The 2020 Mission budget would be $1.5 billion excluding the launch vehicle.
John Grunsfield: Associate Administrator for Science, Jim Green: Director Planetary Science Division, Jack Mustard: Science Definition Team Professor of Geological Sciences Brown and Lindy Elkins-Tanton: SDT Member and Director, Carnegie Institution for Sciences Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Washington