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NASA: We will continue missions to Mars because it may hold life

Even after sending three robotic rovers to the Red Planet, NASA has announced plans that it will continue to focus on Mars despite some efforts to adjust its focus to nearby moons. Just six months after the newest Mars rover, Curiosity, landed on Martian soil, the space agency has revealed that it has no plans to cease its interest in Mars.

In August of last year, NASA celebrated with the rest of world as their newest robotic rover landed safely on Mars. Many held their breath as Curiosity touched down after eight and a half months traveling to Earth’s closest planetary neighbor. The entire mission is said to have roughly cost $2.5 billion dollars.

Building on the success of Curiosity’s Red Planet landing, NASA has announced plans for a robust multi-year Mars program, including a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020. The planned portfolio includes the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers; two NASA spacecraft and contributions to one European spacecraft currently orbiting Mars; the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere; the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars; and participation in ESA’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing “Electra” telecommunication radios to ESA’s 2016 mission and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

Since Curiosity holds a very sophisticated and fragile haul of laboratory equipment on board, the landing was crucial. In fact, according to Curiosity project leader Adam Steltzner, not everything went to plant. Apparently, the NASA engineers miscalculated the gravitational force at the rover’s proposed landing site. This cause Curiosity to move too slowly while descending onto Mars. The rover landed just fine, but Steltzner said it could have been a different story had the rover moved too quickly though the Martian atmosphere.

Despite the minor hiccup, the landing was considered a major success for the space agency. In the six months since Curiosity landed, the rover has been hard at work. It has even started to drill into the rocks, a first for the U.S. space agency. With the help of its science laboratory, the rover has been able to analyze a large number of specimens and shows no signs of slowing down for the rest of its initial two year mission to find signs of water and life on Mars.

In addition to real-time data about Martian soil and rocks, Curiosity has been able to provide NASA researchers with a plethora of interesting data on the Red Planet. The pictures, which are all high definition, have even revealed where streams may have once flowed. Despite these accomplishments, NASA is not looking to slow down on the Mars missions.

On PBS NewsHour, Stelzner revealed that NASA continues to focus on Mars because of the never ending curiosity of the possibility of life on the nearby planet. In addition, he blames an innate longing to understand and explore the universe as a reason to continue pursuing research on Mars.

According to Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist for the Curiosity mission, the 2020 mission could provide scientists with more data about the Red Planet’s history and evolution. “Each one has more capabilities and more aggressive scientific questions it’s asking than the last,” he said.

He said that while Curiosity is focused on finding potential habitable environments in ancient Mars history, the next one “will most likely ask more direct questions about whether life actually was present in these environments.”

If all goes well on Mars, Sheltzner is already planning missions to moons circling both Jupiter and Saturn although he still has to convince NASA they’re worth exploring.