For its Mars missions NASA is still using parachutes based on the design of the 1970s Viking landers. Those old-school chutes are 69 feet (21 meters) wide; the 2018 or 2020 mission would employ a 98-foot-wide (30 m) chute with a design that produces far more drag.
The lower price tag for a 2018 or 2020 mission reflects NASA's efforts to find a way forward in tough fiscal times. President Barack Obama's proposed 2013 federal budget, which was released in February, slashes NASA planetary science funding by 20 percent, with much of that coming out of the Mars program.
The cuts led NASA to withdraw from the European Space Agency-led ExoMars mission, which aims to send an orbiter and rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
In response to its new budget situation, NASA asked scientists for ideas on how to explore Mars on the cheap. The most promising of these proposals were presented at a workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston in late June.
The workshop’s final report, with recommendations, is to be delivered to NASA by the end of August. However, the report summarizing the workshop’s findings is now available on the LPI website.
The report describes several possible scenarios for a 2018 or 2020 mission, including a lander or a rover similar to the twins Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January 2004 and exceeded all mission expectations.
The summary also states that workshop participants saw value in early international involvement in whatever mission is chosen. They also expected that technology advances will deliver instruments that can meet scientists' goals while on the sort of rover or fixed station that NASA has already sent to the Red Planet.