With the announcement by NASA’s associate administrator for science, John Grunsfled, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Tuesday that the space agency has plans to send a new rover mission to the Red Planet, Mars, in 2020 it was also announced that the present rover mission on the planet, Curiosity, will be getting a budget extension, increasing the mission time to an indefinite period.
The new Mars mission, which will land on the Red Planet in 2021, was green lit in part due to the success of the technologies used in Curiosity. The technologies will be employed again for the new rover.
At the meeting, Mr. Grunsfled said that while previously, Curiosity’s mission was budgeted for a period of two years, it has now been extended indefinitely, explaining that the mission will continue as long as Curiosity can last.
Speaking, Mr. Grunsfled said, "We've already decided with this plan that we will continue to operate Curiosity as long as it's scientifically viable," adding, “And that could be a long time."
Of course, while the on-board tools and equipment of any rover, such as those that were sent before Curiosity and are still somewhat operational, may deteriorate over time, the battery life, which in previous rovers has been solar-powered (which too deteriorates over time), of Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is nuclear-powered. Using what is known as a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), fuelled by plutonium-238, Curiosity has decades of life still in it. Mr. Grunsfled explains, "I never get a straight answer on this, but I think it has 55 years of positive power margin."
With nearly half a century of battery power at its disposal, Curiosity will most definitely be functional while its counterpart joins it in 2021. The MSL will not be the only rover that will be receiving the 2020 mission, as rovers Spirit and Opportunity have gone beyond their own mission timeframe of three months (landing back in 2004) and are still trundling across the Martian surface, with Opportunity also communicating with mission control (Spirit ceased communications back in 2010).
In addition to the 2020 rover mission, NASA is also planning to send a new orbiter, the Maven, in 2013 to second the already-orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which was launched in 2005, as well as send the InSight Lander in 2016. The European Space Agency, ESA, has also announced it will be sending rover missions to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018.