NASA follows Mars successes with plans for $2B super rover

Pair of rovers on Martian soil among agency's most successful technology

Following up on what's been called some of NASA's most successful technology, the space agency is pushing ahead with plans to launch an SUV-size rover to Mars next year.

The Mars Science Laboratory is on track to launch next fall, despite mounting costs and the work it will take to ready the machine. With an estimated budget of $2 billion, the super-rover will carry three different kinds of cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors. According to NASA, all of these instruments are designed to help scientists figure out whether life ever existed on Mars and prepare to send humans to the Red Planet.

In a press conference late last week, Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters, said that to stay on schedule, the agency will need more financing, though he did not specify how much will be needed. Scientists are forging ahead with the hope that funding will come for the project.

NASA has been heavily focused on exploring Mars with two rovers, the Phoenix Mars Lander and an orbiter already studying the planet.

And with the success that NASA has had with the two rovers working on Mars, there's a lot of excitement brewing to send up a new one.

The two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which wave been motoring around Mars for nearly five years, are some of the best pieces of technology that the Jet Propulsion Lab has ever built, said Bruce Banerdt, project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers.

"It is amazing. Every day I just have to tip my hat to the engineers who designed them," Banerdt said. "They were supposed to design them to last for a 90-day mission. ... Of course, I can guarantee that nobody expected them to last this long. We've had to actually rewrite all the software on the rovers because the calendar system keeps track of how many days it's been on Mars and they only [were set for] 1,000 days. We had to rewrite the software so everything wouldn't shut down. It was like Y2k. Now the joke is we only have four digits so when we get to 10,000 days we'll have another problem on our hands."

The rovers, which are working on the equator but on different sides of the planet, have been on Mars just three months shy of five years. The machines have been sending and receiving information from Earth every day, with a team of about two-dozen programmers and engineers uploading code to guide the rovers' movements and aim their cameras. All of that information travels about 200 million miles one way, taking anywhere from five to 21 minutes to travel from one planet to the other.

Mars Science Laboratory
NASA is trying to stay on track with a planned launch of its Mars Science Laboratory next fall. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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