WASHINGTON — As NASA’s next flagship Mars mission, the Mars 2020 rover, moves into its next phase of development, agency officials say the mission will cost $2.1 billion, more than originally estimated for a mission that they argue will also be more capable than first planned.
NASA announced July 15 that the Mars 2020 mission passed a development milestone known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), allowing the mission to proceed into Phase C design and development work. The rover is scheduled for launch in mid-2020 and land on Mars in February 2021.
The rover’s primary mission will be to collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth. “The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth,” said Geoff Yoder, NASA’s acting associate administrator for science, in a statement.
Completion of the KDP-C milestone for NASA missions is usually accompanied by a formal cost and schedule estimate. Those figures were not included in the July 15 announcement, but Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesman Guy Webster said July 18 that Mars 2020 now has a cost estimate of $2.1 billion for its development and launch. An additional $300 million will cover operations for one Martian year, or 687 days. Both estimates are at the 70 percent confidence level, meaning that there is a 70 percent chance their costs will be no more than those values.
That amount is significantly higher than initial estimates for the mission when John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science at the time, announced plans for the mission in December 2012. AHe said then the mission would cost about $1.5 billion, or 40 percent less than the $2.5 billion cost of the Mars Science Laboratory mission that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in August 2012.
A reason for the cost savings is that the 2020 rover would be based on Curiosity’s design, and make use of “heritage” hardware in the form of spares built for but not used by Curiosity. “Since Mars 2020 is leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, a significant amount of the mission’s heritage components have already been built during Phases A and B,” said George Tahu, the Mars 2020 program executive at NASA Headquarters, in the July 15 statement.
Tahu said July 19 that the original estimate of $1.5 billion for Mars 2020 was based on initial assumptions of “a more constrained scope of mission that fit within the planetary science budget environment at the time.” That initial estimate, he said, did not include potential contributions from NASA’s space technology and human spaceflight mission directorates, and “assumed a more modest science payload than what was solicited and ultimately selected.”
At the time NASA approved Mars 2020 to go into Phase A, where it defines the mission’s concept and requirements, NASA assumed “a scope that was at the $2 billion order of magnitude for development and launch,” he said, taking into account plans for a larger science payload. NASA selected seven instruments to fly on the rover in July 2014, at a projected cost of $130 million.
Tahu said that the mission also decided to add new technologies to the rover, including a system that increases the accuracy of the rover’s landing and another to improve the rover’s ability to drive autonomously. “Our confirmed cost today, in real year dollars, of $2.1 billion for development and launch and $300 million for prime mission operations remains consistent with the scope and cost approved at the start of the project,” he said.
Mars 2020 is the first step in a long-term effort for Mars sample return, and is based on a mission concept endorsed as the highest priority large mission by the most recent planetary science decadal study published in 2011. However, returning the samples to Earth would likely require two additional missions: one to land on Mars, take the samples collected by Mars 2020, and launch them into Mars orbit; and another to collect the sample canister in Mars orbit and return it to Earth.
Neither of those missions is under development by NASA. However, some NASA studies have suggested using a Mars orbiter mission proposed for launch in 2022, primarily as a telecommunications relay and reconnaissance platform, to also collect the sample in Mars orbit and return it to Earth. That would require the use of a large solar electric propulsion system like the one NASA is proposing for use on its Asteroid Redirect Mission.
On July 18, NASA announced it awarded study contracts for that Mars orbiter mission to five companies: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral. Those studies will examine ways “for supporting additional scientific instruments and functionalities” with the orbiter beyond its primary communications and imaging roles, according to a NASA statement, although it does not specifically mention sample return.