WASHINGTON — NASA will not be able to send another rover to the martian surface before 2020 under current budget plans, the head of a panel charged with evaluating the agency’s Mars exploration options said May 8.

“A stationary lander might be possible in 2018,” said Orlando Figueroa, NASA’s former Mars czar and chairman of the Mars Program Planning Group. “A mobile lander, a rover, doesn’t fit in the budget we have available.”

An orbiter, on the other hand, “we can almost do very quickly,” Figueroa said during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council planetary science subcommittee held at NASA headquarters here.

Figueroa’s group was created in February by John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, to examine possible architectures for what NASA calls Mars Next Decade. The mission, a cross-agency effort intended to incorporate goals from NASA’s human spaceflight and space technology divisions, was conceived after NASA formally withdrew from the European Space Agency’s ExoMars sample caching campaign earlier this year. Russia has taken NASA’s place as Europe’s partner.

NASA says it will spend $700 million to $800 million on Mars Next Decade, for which the earliest launch opportunity is 2018. If NASA skips the 2018 launch opportunity and spreads the funding over two additional years, it could pay for a rover, Figueroa said.

Figueroa’s group is expected to deliver its final report in August, giving NASA officials time to fold the recommendations into the 2014 budget plan to be submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget in September.

Figueroa reiterated previous statements that his team will consider only missions that contribute in some way to an eventual Mars sample-return mission, which is the U.S. planetary science community’s top priority for flagship-class Mars exploration endeavors.

The White House in February sent Congress a 2013 budget request that would reduce the Planetary Science division’s budget from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion. An appropriations bill drafted in the House of Representatives recommended giving the division $1.4 billion for 2013 and would require that NASA either create a Mars Next Decade mission that works toward sample return or scrap it in favor of sending an orbiter to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The White House on May 7 threatened to veto the House proposal, which funds NASA at $17.6 billion as part of a broader $51.1 billion appropriations bill that funds several agencies.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, warned that the White House could pull the plug on Mars Next Decade if the agency cannot decide on a mission that fulfills science, human exploration and space technology objectives.

“We are given an opportunity by this administration to craft a new Mars program,” Green said at the May 8 meeting. “If we are not able to do that, or if we are not able to show the synergies and move this agency forward both in human exploration and science, we may not be able to retain that budget.”



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.