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NASA moves forward with Mars exploration plan

By Shelby Lin Erdman, CNN
NASA's Mars rover program may face revisions as it heads into its sixth year.
NASA's Mars rover program may face revisions as it heads into its sixth year.
  • NASA may merge Mars exploration program with European Union's
  • U.S. space agency is reviewing missions to Red Planet
  • One U.S. Mars rover stumbled into sand trap nine months ago
  • NASA plans to launch Mars Science Laboratory in late 2011

(CNN) -- NASA has big plans for its Mars Exploration Program.

As it decides the future of one of the two rovers exploring the planet, the agency is looking to the launch of the newest generation of robotic explorer next year.

In addition, NASA tells CNN Radio that the agency is close to a deal to merge its Mars program with that of the European Space Agency, a big step toward manned missions.

NASA's Mars rover program is now heading into its sixth year. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched in 2004 and landed on opposite sides of Mars for what was to be a 90-day exploration mission.

Almost six years and a wealth of information later, the rovers were still ranging across the planet until recently, sending back data to researchers on Earth.

Spirit stumbled into a sand trap nine months ago, however, and all efforts to free the vehicle have failed. In fact, the latest attempts resulted in it sinking even deeper into the soil.

NASA could make a decision as soon as next month, during its annual review, on whether to continue rescue efforts, the agency says.

"At this point, we intend to have the independent board look at our situation with Spirit and give us any additional recommendations as to whether we should continue to try and extract it or not, " said Doug McCuistion, the director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

Even if the sand trap becomes Spirit's final resting place, the rover's mission may not be over quite yet. McCuistion, calling Spirit an incredible success, said there are certainly things the lame rover can do scientifically, even if it's not mobile.

"The types of science we could do if it were stationary include imagery. The seasons change. We're going into winter now on Mars. And certainly the way the climate changes, the way weather changes, the way the weather patterns work, is something we can continue to monitor and learn more about," he said.

"There's a potential we can do some other geologic work, such as seismology, which is related to impacts of meteorites on the surface. ... That is actually science that has never been done and is very important to understand. There's even the potential to continue some geological work in regards to soil composition and makeup."

In the meantime, NASA is preparing for the launch of its newest robotic space exploration vehicle, the Mars Science Laboratory, late next year. It weighs roughly one metric ton and is about the size of a small automobile.

The MSL rover, in addition to carrying cameras and other instrumentation, will carry a series of chemistry laboratories. And it will have the ability to test material in vastly different areas of the planet.

"There hasn't been a mission, not only as complex but as capable, since the Viking landers in the '70s went to the surface. The real difference is, this one can move around," McCuistion said.

The MSL, when it arrives on Mars in 2012, barring any unforeseen delays, "will take science on the surface of another planet to a completely different step," he said.

But what about a manned mission to Mars? Is that a near-term possibility, or is it much farther down the road?

Before any human can travel to Mars, scientists need to be able to analyze samples from the planet and answer many questions, NASA says. Martian dust, for example: What is its composition? How sticky is it? Will it stick to boots and clog zippers and Velcro fasteners? Is it toxic? If astronauts track surface materials into their habitat, will it cause problems?

Those are just some of the questions; there are hundreds more.

Undoubtedly, humans are still years away from paying a personal visit.

"That's a very challenging mission of launching something from here, putting it into orbit at Mars, getting it to the surface and collecting samples, getting those samples back into orbit, then return them to Earth," McCuistion said. "This is a mission that will change our understanding of Mars and change our understanding of planetary science significantly. It really needs to be a global effort."

Toward that end, NASA and the European Space Agency have been in discussions over the past year on merging their Mars exploration programs. NASA officials say they've now taken a major step forward.

"The European Space Agency's council and their program board have agreed to the terms that we're working with and have endorsed this partnership to go forward. So we are starting the new year with a renewed excitement for missions beginning in 2016 to be done in a joint partnership between Europe and NASA," McCuistion said.

With details remaining to be worked out, he predicted that it will take another six to 12 months for the merger to be completed.

The European agency is making major progress on landing technology, which is essential for not only getting samples from Mars back to Earth but for eventual human travel to Mars, he said.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express mission is orbiting the planet right now. McCuistion said it has been involved in reaffirming observations made from the ground about methane potentially being in the atmosphere of Mars, which is a huge discovery over the past couple years.

McCuistion described the Mars Exploration Program as an exciting collaboration of many missions with the intent of changing the text books on the planet.

"We have accelerated our knowledge of the planet dramatically by sending missions every other year," he said.

"So we will continue that thread, and we will continue to change science as we do it."

Maria Boynton, Ninette Sosa and Sherri Maksin contributed to this report.