NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is one of several current Mars missions expected to reach the end of its life in the next several years. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — Despite concerns that aging spacecraft currently at Mars will fail in the next several years, NASA has yet to formally approve plans for any Mars missions beyond a 2020 rover, such as a new orbiter.

At a teleconference held by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group Oct. 6, Jim Watzin, director of the agency’s Mars Exploration Program, said he had made little progress on future missions beyond the Mars 2020 Rover mission, currently under development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Somewhat disappointingly, we are still in a situation where we have no missions beyond 2020 on the books that are approved or budgeted,” he said. “It’s a difficult environment to get new missions into the program right now, and so we continue to work hard to try to build the advocacy necessary to get some missions.”

A top priority that has been discussed by both NASA officials and planetary scientists is an orbiter that would carry high-resolution cameras and other instruments, as well as serve as a communications relay for spacecraft on the surface. That spacecraft could be ready to fly as soon as 2022, the next launch window after 2020.

The design of that orbiter, though, is still being studied. “We continue to work on concepts and approaches that will allow us to get that orbiter in place as quickly as possible,” Watzin said. “I think it is still possible, with a focused beginning of the program, that we could be ready to support a launch as early as 2022.”

Those efforts include industry studies of the potential use of a commercial spacecraft bus for the orbiter. Those studies are ongoing, but Watzin said initial results “are looking very, very encouraging” regarding their use. “Industry capabilities are quite mature,” he said. “We could have a very healthy and vigorous competition to select a bus, and expect very little or limited development on that.”

Another option for the orbiter that remains under consideration is the use of electric propulsion that would allow the spacecraft to change its orbit around Mars or even return to Earth. That could allow the orbiter to serve as part of NASA’s overall Mars sample return effort, along with the 2020 rover collecting samples and a later mission to retrieve them and launch them into Mars orbit.

Watzin said one role for the orbiter is to support scientific priorities for the next decade at Mars, which includes sample return. “Does it make sense to fly on this orbiter the capability to rendezvous and capture the sample in orbit?” he asked. “We continue to study the different ways that that could be implemented.”

A driving factor in the development of a new Mars orbiter, for 2022 or later, is the aging fleet of spacecraft currently orbiting Mars or on its surface. Watzin said that, by the end of the decade, most of them will likely have reduced capabilities if not have failed outright.

“It becomes pretty apparent that the era that we all know and love and embrace, and are extracting extraordinary science from, really comes to an end at the end of the decade,” he said of the anticipated ending of existing Mars missions.

At the same time, he noted increased interest in Mars exploration from other nations as well as companies like SpaceX. That could lead to changes in how future NASA Mars missions, Watzin suggested. One option he discussed was to operate them as observatories where individual scientists submit proposals for specific studies, in much the same way as ground- and space-based telescopes are run.

“It may be a way to adapt to the changing environment at Mars,” he said, offering it as “food for thought” as one potential way to run future missions. “The current era of Mars exploration will be over early in the 2020s.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...