How much is the Mars Exploration Program costing

Mars exploration missions, like most NASA missions, are varied and of varying budget levels

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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How much is the Mars Exploration Program costing
© Hugh Hastings / Stringer Getty Images News

Mars Exploration Program is a long-term mission to explore the planet Mars, funded and led by NASA. Launched in 1993, the MEP has used Martian orbiters, landers and rovers to explore the possibilities of life on Mars through its climate and natural resources.

The program is managed by Doug McCuistion's Science Mission Directorate of the Planetary Science Division. Due to 40% cuts to NASA's budget for fiscal year 2013, the Mars Program Planning Group was formed to reformulate the MEP, bringing together leaders from the technology, science, and habitation missions.

Mars exploration missions, like most NASA missions, are varied and of varying budget levels. For example, the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in August 2012 has a budget of $2.5 billion, while the ESCAPADE mission scheduled for 2022 has a budget cap of $55 million.

NASA also has collaborative goals with the European Space Agency to develop and conduct a mission to return Martian surface samples to Earth, which would cost at least $5 billion over 10 years of work. In February 2012, NASA faced large budget cuts to many of its programs, including $300 million to the Planetary Science Division for fiscal year 2013.

In response to these cuts, the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget 2 months later that reinstated $150 million to the same planetary division, on the condition that this money be used for a Martian soil sample return mission.

In February 2020, the United States Congress imposed a target date of 2033 to send a human crew to Martian orbit, which suggests significant budget allocations in future years.

The objectives of the MEP

To understand Mars' habitability potential, we need to determine where life might have formed there.

The MEP's primary strategy is to "chase the water", based on the common belief that where there is life there must be water. Clearly if life had developed on Mars it would have needed sufficiently long-lived quantities of water.

So a primary goal of the MEP is to find places where liquid water is or was present, for example in dried river beds, the subsoil and the polar ice caps. Aside from water, life needs energy resources to survive. The abundance of oxides makes surface life on Mars very difficult, making sunlight the only available energy source.

Therefore it is necessary to find alternative energy sources, such as geothermal or chemical energy, both of which are important for microscopic terrestrial life forms that could survive in the subsoil of Mars. Life on Mars can also be searched for through signs of life from present or past organisms.

The relative abundance of carbon and the location and form in which it might be found would allow us to understand how such microscopic life developed. Furthermore, the presence of carbonates, together with the fact that Mars' atmosphere is predominantly made up of carbon dioxide, could explain to scientists whether water had been available on the planet for a long enough period to favor the development of life.

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