Science: Is NASA Done Sending Traditional Rovers to Mars?

In February 2021, NASA landed a $2.7 billion rover on Mars that has been roaming the Red Planet ever since. The space agency got what it paid for, as the largely autonomous Perseverance rover has been dutifully collecting rock core samples from Mars and storing them for the first sample return mission from another planet.

Perseverance was the fifth rover of its kind to be sent to Mars, but in terms of NASA’s future robotic exploration of Mars, the space agency is leaning towards launching a series of lower-cost, sustainable missions once every two years, as opposed to developing hugely expensive rovers for the Red Planet.

During a meeting at the National Academies’ Space Studies Board on Thursday, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program Eric Ianson unveiled the space agency’s long-term strategy for exploring Mars, titled “Exploring Mars Together” that highlighted what’s next after the sample return mission, SpaceNews reported.

“We wanted to look two decades into the future as far as what are the things that we can do to create equally dramatic and profound science [as Mars Sample Return],” Ianson is quoted as saying. “What we’re proposing to do here is to do it at lower cost and a higher cadence of missions.” He projected that those low-cost missions would be between $100 million to $300 million each.

Should the proposed draft strategy be accepted as doctrine, it can be said that NASA will end the era of high-end Mars rovers with a bang; it does not get more complex than Mars Sample Return. The mission is a joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency, and it includes an orbiter, lander, two helicopters, and a rocket. Working together, this fleet will retrieve rock samples that have been stowed away by the Perseverance rover on Mars.

Moving forward, however, the space agency wants to keep it simple. “Historically we’ve had peaks and valleys in the Mars program,” said Ianson during the meeting, according to SpaceNews. “When we talk about sustainability, it’s something that can be constant throughout. We want to try and maintain missions on a regular cadence.”

That is until NASA tries to land humans on Mars for the first time. The space agency is focused on its Moon to Mars objectives, a proposed idea to use the Moon as a testbed to eventually land humans on Mars, including the use of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket for deep space exploration. With the prospect of landing humans on Mars, NASA no longer seems interested in developing increasingly complex robots for the Red Planet. Which actually makes sense.

NASA’s rover missions usually came one right after the other. The Curiosity rover, Perseverance’s predecessor, landed on Mars in August 2012 and NASA began developing its Mars 2020 rover mission the following year. But now, the agency’s “Future” tab on its Mars Exploration website includes a section for the Mars Sample Return mission and another section for “Humans on Mars,” indicating that another signature Mars rover mission is currently not in the books.

This could very well be the end of a legendary era for NASA’s Mars exploration program. The robotic Martian explorers have provided some major insights on the history of Mars and the potential for the discovery of ancient microbial life on another planet, plus a few iconic selfies during their journey. I guess a human selfie on Mars could be pretty cool too, but those humans will have some big, robotic shoes to fill.