As NASA celebrates its super rover's first year on Mars, scientists made it clear that the space agency's interest in the planet is only ramping up.
NASA, which will be sending more robotic rovers to Mars, also has set its sights on sending humans to the Red Planet between 2033 and 2043.
"Our destiny is to leave lower Earth orbit and trek out into the solar system," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary division, in a news conference today. "We believe that humans can land on Mars in 20, perhaps 30, years from now."
NASA has long planned on sending humans to Mars. Robotic rovers like Curiosity and its predecessors Opportunity and Spirit are paving the way for that exploration.
Green said that the current rovers are helping scientists understand Mars and its history, as well as whether or not the planet was ever able to sustain life. Future rovers will go to Mars ahead of their human counterparts to begin building a outpost there and to work with astronauts once they arrive.
A little more than three years ago, NASA showed off a six-legged robotic rover that could one day help to set up a human habitat on Mars. At the time, NASA engineers expected this rover to be ready to blast off by 2015. An updated timeline has not been given.
"Men on Mars will communicate with orbiters and they'll be working and living on Mars and they'll have rovers helping them," said Green. "We're thinking of a rover like Curiosity, in terms of volume, size and mass, but it'll have a completely different set of instruments."
Prasun Desai, acting director of Strategic Integration with NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said NASA already is working on technologies that it'll need to not only get astronauts to Mars but to enable them to live there temporarily and then to make it back to Earth.
He noted that scientists are working to improve life-support systems, power sources, navigation, radiation protection and propulsion.
Desai also noted that NASA is investigating whether 3D printing can be used to build tools and spare parts in deep space to help decrease the weight a spacecraft would have to carry on a long journey to Mars. 3D printers might also be able to create food for astronauts that they could eat in place of freeze-dried meals.
"Old settlers had to bring everything they needed with them or they lived off the land," said Desai. "When we go to Mars, we have to bring the air with us too, not just the water to drink and the food to eat. We need to make rocket fuel there so we can launch off the surface to come home. We need to be able to live off the land on Mars."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.