NASA to extend Mars exploration with another robotic rover

Based on scientific success of Curiosity, another rover set to launch in 2020

With NASA's super rover Curiosity successfully investigating Mars, the space agency announced plans to extend its work there and even send up another robotic rover.

"The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "With this next mission, we're ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s."

The next plan in the works is to build another robotic rover, equipped with scientific instruments, for launch in 2020. That will be a major step to support the goal set by President Barack Obama to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

The next rover mission will be based on the Mars Science Laboratory architecture that carried the Curiosity on a nearly nine-month journey to the Martian surface this summer.

"The challenge to restructure the Mars Exploration Program has turned from the seven minutes of terror for the Curiosity landing to the start of seven years of innovation," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science. "This mission concept fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity."

This plan for further Mars exploration comes on the heels of NASA's August announcement that it also intends to explore the interior of Mars to discover why that planet developed so differently from Earth. That mission, dubbed Insight, is designed to discover whether the core of Mars is solid or liquid like Earth's, and why Mars' crust is not divided into tectonic plates that drift as they do on Earth.

Insight involves a lander that carries two cameras, a robotic arm and a thermal probe that will pierce the Martian surface to gauge the planet's temperature. The lander is expected to launch in 2016.

Right now, NASA's rover Curiosity is not the only machine exploring Mars.

Coming up on its ninth anniversary, NASA's rover Opportunity is still at work on Mars. Opportunity, along with its robotic twin Spirit, were both launched in 2003 on a three-month mission. Both rovers far exceeded expectations with Spirit continuing work until 2010 and Opportunity still investigating the surface of Mars.

NASA has repeatedly said that robots are critical to the exploration of Mars and that they'll even be used to help build a human outpost there someday.

In 2010, NASA announced that it was building a six-legged robot that can walk or roll on wheels and ultimately help set up a habitat on Mars for astronauts.

The robot, which went into development in 2005, is designed to move easily across the various types of terrain on the moon, on Mars or even on an asteroid.

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

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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