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NASA planning Curiosity v2.0 for Mars touchdown in 2020

It's going to be a busy decade for Red Planet

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NASA has been laying out its plans to send a second rover to Mars based on the Curiosity platform that's currently trundling across, and burrowing into, the planet's surface.

"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."

The new rover will use the same body as Curiosity and the same Skycrane landing system, but will contain a new suite of experiments for exploration. By saving the costs associated with designing a new rover, the organization thinks it can cut the price of the second mission to around $1.5bn and not have to worry about an unproven design as a side benefit.

NASA's science mission directorate is currently formulating the next rover mission's objectives, after which it will open the tendering process to build the instruments needed. Curiosity's current mission is to look at the habitability of Mars by building up a picture of its composition and the nature of any organic materials, but version 2.0 could add the ability to bring samples back to Earth.

"I'm delighted to see the Obama administration lay out a plan to return a NASA rover to the surface of Mars in 2020," Scott Hubbard, former NASA Mars program director said in an emailed statement. "If a caching system is included, we can begin moving toward a sample return campaign, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences."

Before the new rover gets there, however, there's going to be a lot of activity on and above Mars. Next year, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter will be launched, and by 2014 it should be in orbit, analyzing the thin Martian atmosphere and the effects of solar winds on the planet.

By 2016, with a little luck and a lot of science, the next lander will touchdown on Martian soil and start digging into it: InSight, short for The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. This static platform will use a "Tractor Mole" to dig 16ft (5m) into the planet to measure the heat closer to the core, and will also include a seismic detector to see how Mars is shaking geologically.

When the new Martian rover touches dirt in 2020, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the original Curiosity will still be operational. Its nuclear power plant is certainly good for eight years, and given that the the aged Opportunity rover is still rolling, Curiosity Two could potentially meet its father. ®

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