The iconic NASA rover has explored the Red Planet since 2012, collecting and analysing rock samples from the Mars Gale crater. But proposed budget cuts for 2021 threaten to disrupt the mission, forcing NASA to reconsider its options. According to Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity team faces enormous setbacks.
Dr Vasavada said: “The team feels a bit under crisis now because of the funding situation. This is a big morale hit for us.”
In its 2021 federal budget request, the White House has called for £20.1billion ($ 25billion) in NASA funding.
The budget aims to prioritise some areas of research, NASA’s Artemis programme in particular, while slashing funding for other divisions.
Under the proposed budget, the Mars Curiosity team would have to conduct its mission with only £32.8million ($ 40million) – a 20 percent cut in funding.
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Mars rover: The Curiosity rover faces tough budget cuts
NASA budget: Percentage of the federal budget given to NASA over the years
The funding situation is even more critical since the current budget was already cut by 13 percent from the last year.
According to Space.com, the proposed budget will force NASA’s scientists to considerably scale back their operations.
The £32.8million ($ 40million) funding would leave about 40 percent of the science team’s capability unused.
The proposed cuts will also affect the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – which has been taking stunning pictures of Mars – and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft.
The Curiosity rover landed in the 96-mile-wide (154km) Gale Crater in August 2012.
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The goal of the mission was to determine whether the Red Planet supported life in the past.SIGHT]
This is a big morale hit for us
Gale Crater is believed to be the remnant of an ancient Martian lake – a suitable location to find evidence of past microbial life.
The mission cost NASA about £2.01billion ($ 2.5billion) and has so far confirmed the presence of organic material in Mars’ soil.
Since 2014, the plucky Mars rover has been slowly trudging through Mount Sharp – an 18,000ft-high peak in the centre of Gale Crater.
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The region is abundant in clay-rich sediments, shedding light on Mars’ wet past.
On top of the Mount Sharp region, NASA’s scientists want to explore a nearby formation dubbed the Greenheugh Pediment.
The formation may have been formed by running water from a source atop Mount Sharp.
Dr Vasavada said: “This is just a huge climate signature that we want to be able to explore.”
Richard Zurek, Mars Principal Investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “There is still a lot of work on Mars.
“This is a dynamic planet, the surface and atmosphere of which are changing on many scales: from hours to decades.
“If the United States rolls back its operations there, we won’t know what we have lost for a very long time.”
There is also a concern the proposed budget does not see any further funding beyond the year 2022.
If that is the case, NASA may be forced to pull the plug on the Curiosity rover.
But NASA’s exploration of Mars will not end with the Curiosity rover.
Mars rover: NASA’s Curiosity has found organic materials in Martian soil
Mars rover: NASA’s 2020 Perseverance is based on the Curiosity design
Later this summer, the US space agency will launch its 2020 Mars Rover, recently dubbed Perseverance.
Scheduled to launch between July 17 and August 5, the rover is based on the Curiosity base design.
NASA said: “The Perseverance rover will seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.”
NASA aims to land the rover on Mars on February 18, 2021.