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December 5, 2012

NASA sets sights back on Mars

LOS ANGELES — NASA is headed to Mars — again.

The space agency said Tuesday it plans to launch another mega-rover to Mars in 2020 that will be modeled after the wildly popular Curiosity. To keep costs down, engineers will borrow Curiosity’s blueprints, build from spare parts where possible and use proven technology including the novel landing system that delivered the car-size rover inside an ancient crater in August.

The announcement comes as NASA reboots its Mars exploration program during tough fiscal times.

“If we act now, we can build one at the lowest possible price,” NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld said in an interview.

Like Curiosity, the mission will be managed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but many other details still need to be worked out including where the rover will land and what instruments it will carry to the surface.

While the science goals are still fuzzy, NASA said the rover at the very least should kickstart a campaign to return Martian soil and rocks to Earth — a goal trumpeted by many scientists. The current rover doesn’t have that capability.

Despite Curiosity’s successful landing, the road to the launch pad was bumpy. At $2.5 billion, the project ran over schedule and over budget.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said the engineering hurdles have been fixed and he expected the new rover to cost less. One independent estimate put the mission at $1.5 billion, though NASA is working on its own cost estimate.

The red planet will see a flurry activity over the next several years. Next year, NASA plans to launch an orbiter to study the atmosphere followed by a relatively low-cost robotic lander in 2016.

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