A year after budget issues forced NASA to pull out of a European-led campaign to return rock and soil samples from Mars, the U.S. space agency announced plans to duplicate its Curiosity rover, outfit it with different science instruments and launch in 2020.

The question of whether the new rover also will be able to collect and cache samples for future return to Earth will be left to a team of scientists to scope out next year, NASA’s associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said at the American Geophysics Union conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.


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The new rover will be a virtual duplicate of Curiosity, a car-sized, nuclear-powered rover that landed on Mars on Aug. 6 to look for habitats that could have supported — or perhaps still supports — microbial life.

Using spare equipment and the same designs should allow NASA to shave about $1 billion off the cost of the two-year, $2.5 billion Curiosity mission, Grunsfeld said.

Where the Curiosity twin rover would land, what instruments it will carry and the question of a sample cache have not yet been determined.

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NASA was considering flying another orbiter to Mars, in part to assure it would have radio communications links for ongoing and future missions. Instead, additional funding will be allotted to keep all the current Mars missions operating, including the yet-to-be-launched atmospheric probe, MAVEN, which is scheduled to fly in 2013.

Curiosity, which is four months into a planned two-year mission, will be extended to at least five years, Grunsfeld said.

NASA also will contribute a key science instrument to Europe’s planned ExoMars rover, as well as engineering support for an entry, descent and landing system. Europe is partnering with Russia for the launch, originally to have been provided by NASA.

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“This is potentially good news,” said Cornell University planetary scientist Steve Squyres. “The (science) community has already come forward with a very clear message about what the next Mars surface mission should be and that is to cache the samples that will come back to Earth. That’s really a necessary part of this mission.”

NASA expects to release a solicitation for the new Mars rover next summer.

“While 2020 may seem a long way off, it’s really not,” Grunsfeld said. “Curiosity was a decade in the works.”

Image: Artist’s impression of Curiosity after landing inside Gale Crater in August. NASA/JPL-Caltech