The next big mission to Mars that NASA is mounting is the Mars 2020 Rover, essentially an augmented version of Mars Curiosity. But, as Space News reports, things get murkier after that. Scientists are warning that the exploration of Mars leading up to the first crewed landings scheduled to take place in the 2030s, will go off the rails unless NASA starts green lighting missions and Congress starts funding them. The space agency has promised a new roadmap in August.

A Mars orbiter is needed for 2022

The first on the wish list for scientists is a new orbiter to be sent to Mars in the 2022 launch window.

A new orbiter would have state of the art imaging and remote sensing technology that can examine the Martian landscape and help pick out future landing sites for both robotic and crewed expeditions.

The orbiter is also needed because the ones currently orbiting Mars, such as Mars Odyssey, are starting to reach the end of their operational lifespans. The Mars 2022 orbiter will, therefore, be needed to provide a communications waystation for rovers and other probes operating on the Martian surface. The capability is vital for maintaining the tempo of Martian exploration.

Mars sample return mission

The Holy Grail for Martian exploration, at least until people cross the interplanetary gulfs, will be a Mars Sample Return Mission.

Such an undertaking will be the most complex in the history of space exploration. The Mars 2020 rover will be equipped to grab and store Martian soil and rock samples. At a certain point, a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle will need to be dispatched for Mars 2020 to deliver the samples to. NASA is looking at the SpaceX Red Dragon, being developed by Elon Musk for his private Mars ventures, as the vehicle of choice.

The Red Dragon, if that is the vehicle chosen, would take the samples into orbit where it would rendezvous and dock with an orbiter equipped with a solar electric propulsion unit of the sort that was being built for the now defunct Asteroid Redirect Mission. The orbiter would then take the samples back to Earth orbit where they would be collected and then returned to a secure receiving lab for study.

Interplanetary missions need money

The adage of “no bucks, no Buck Rogers” applies to planetary missions as well. If an orbiter is to be sent to Mars in 2022, funding is going to have to start next year. That means either Congress is going to have to take that need into account in the NASA funding bill it is working on now, or a supplemental will have to be passed.