London, September 9 (ANI): In a new report, a panel of experts have suggested that humans could orbit Mars in the 2020s, provided NASA's budget is boosted.
According to an article in the New Scientist, at its current funding level, the agency will be unable to leave low-Earth orbit for at least the next two decades, according to a summary of the panel's report.
Under President George W Bush, NASA was ordered to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. But in May, the Obama administration set up a panel of space experts to review the space agency's human spaceflight plans.
The panel is led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.
Though its final report is still being completed, the committee sent a summary of its findings to the White House and NASA.
The summary contains a list of five possible ways forward for NASA's human spaceflight programme, without endorsing any particular one over the others.
One of those options, called the Flexible Path, would send astronauts to a series of increasingly distant destinations, starting with a mission to orbit the moon.
A mission to an asteroid would follow later, and the plan would culminate in a mission to Mars, which the panel says could be achieved by the mid- to late-2020s.
To avoid breaking the bank, this option would delay development of any landing craft and other hardware needed to actually put astronauts on the planet's surface.
Instead, they would go into orbit around Mars, rendezvousing with one of its moons.
The report does not explain whether the spacecraft would touch down on the Martian moon's surface or orbit around it.
The committee has discussed the Flexible Path idea previously in some of its public meetings, but its summary report is more specific about when the Mars mission would occur.
Such a mission would not see astronauts visit the Martian surface directly, but it would allow them to explore it using remotely controlled robots, which could potentially retrieve rock samples that could be brought back to Earth for more detailed study, according to one of the committee's presentations.
But the committee warned that without more money, NASA would be stuck in low-Earth orbit until at least the 2030s.
"The Committee finds that no plan compatible with the Fiscal Year 2010 budget profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way," the summary report said.
Carrying out the Flexible Path programme or landing astronauts on the moon before the 2030s would require an extra 3 billion dollars per year beyond the 18.7 billion dollars planned for the agency, the report said. (ANI)