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With go-ahead from President Obama, NASA announces 2020 Mars mission

NASA will reportedly return to Mars in 2020.

The U.S. space agency announced late Tuesday its plan to return to the Red Planet, the latest in a series of announcements made by NASA administrators concerning Mars.

In a brief statement released on NASA’s website, NASA officials released a handful of details concerning the 2020 mission. The plans reportedly involves sending a rover comparable to its Curiosity rover, which is currently scouring the planet for signs of life. NASA officials say the plan is supported by the White House, including President Barack Obama.

“The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “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.”

“This mission fits within the five-year budget plan in the president’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, and is contingent on future appropriations,” he added.

NASA, which is currently operating two rovers on Mars (Opportunity and Curiosity), said the 2020 mission would be the next step for the agency in terms of preparing for an eventual manned mission to Mars.

“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,” NASA’s associate administrator for science, and astronaut John Grunsfeld said. “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.”

Speaking Tuesday, Mr. Grunsfeld told reporters the availability of spare parts from Curiosity’s development, including a nuclear generator, eased restrictions on the agency. NASA, which played witness to a series of steep spending cuts earlier this year, said it would rely on data collected during its current Mars mission to create a more efficient and reliable model that could lead to further savings.

“The future rover development and design will be based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) architecture that successfully carried the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface this summer,” he said “This will ensure mission costs and risks are as low as possible, while still delivering a highly capable rover with a proven landing system. The mission will constitute a vital component of a broad portfolio of Mars exploration missions in development for the coming decade.”

The as-yet-unnamed rover is the second new Mars mission announced in the wake of the budget cuts that will be built using already-existing designs. The 2020 mission is expected to cost around $1.5 billion, according to NASA.

The plan to design and build a new Mars robotic science rover with a launch in 2020 comes only months after the agency announced InSight, which will launch in 2016, bringing a total of seven NASA missions operating or being planned to study and explore our Earth-like neighbor. In August, just two weeks after Curiosity’s touchdown, NASA announced the planned mission, saying it would study Mars’s core. The mission will also reportedly seek to determining whether the planet has tectonic plates that slowly move like Earth’s continents.

That announcement also follows in the wake of a Monday press conference in which NASA announced its latest findings relating to Curiosity. The space agency, which hinted at a “historic” announcement earlier this month, said data collected from soil samples shows trace amounts of organic compounds — essential components for life. Curiosity’s examination of soil samples found the composition of Mars soil is about half common volcanic minerals and half non-crystalline materials such as glass.

Speaking at the Monday conference, NASA said it will continue its hunt for present and past lifeforms.

“We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater,” says Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

While the mission is seen as key victory for the U.S. space agency, it has raised questions regarding Congress’s willingness to continue funding missions to Mars. Mr. Obama’s proposed 2013 budget, which failed to garner a single vote in the Senate earlier this year, slashed $300 million dollars from NASA. The president has touted privately-funded space companies as an alternative to NASA, saying interest within the private sector remains strong.

The European Space Agency also has spacecraft orbiting Mars and plans to send a rover to the Red Planet in 2018.