NASA’s Mars rovers, launched over the last dozen years, have been spectacular successes, and many are looking forward to the next rover set to be launched in 2020 to carry on a more detailed exploration of the Red Planet.
In the summer of 2003, two Mars rovers were launched. They landed and successfully operated on the planet for far longer than their planned 90 day operating lives. The Spirit Rover roamed Mars until it became stuck in the Martian sand and ultimately, contact was lost in 2010. The Opportunity Rover continues to operate eleven years after it landed, an amazing accomplishment.
The most recent rover to reach Mars is the Curiosity Rover which landed in August of 2012. Like the Opportunity Rover, it is still operating on the surface.
The mission of these rovers has been to gather detailed information on the planet’s past and to help prepare for future missions, ultimately culminating in a manned mission to the Red Planet. They have provided evidence that water once flowed on the surface, which provides an indication that the conditions necessary for life to evolve likely existed at one time. The rovers have also provided tantalizing evidence, however tenuous, that life may still be present as indicated by the occasional whiffs of methane and other organic chemicals that may be the product of ongoing biological processes.
The next NASA mission is being called the Mars Rover 2020 mission, and an important part of its mission will be the detection of life on the Red Planet. The 2020 mission will carry new and more refined instruments to closely examine the landing site and the environment, provide data on the habitability of the planet, and look for signs of past Martian life.
The goal of a rover launched in 2020 allows time for final design and construction, but would additionally take advantage of a favorable position of Earth’s orbit relative to Mars in 2020. The landing operation will take place using the sky-crane strategy that worked successfully with the Curiosity rover.
[Image Credit: NASA]
With a weight of around one ton, the 2020 rover will be carrying a number of sophisticated instruments that will afford scientist the most detailed analysis of the chemistry and habitability of the Red Planet yet. An advanced camera system called Mastcam-Z will be able to furnish stereoscopic and panoramic images that will be used in geological analyses. An instrument referred to as the SuperCam will provide for imaging and composition analysis as well as information on organic compounds in rocks.
The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) will allow for a more detailed analysis of the chemical makeup of the surface. A spectrometer known as Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) will use an ultraviolet laser to develop refined mineralogy investigations and look for organic chemicals. SHERLOC can scan a fingernail sized area with a laser and utilize fluorescence spectroscopy to look for organics. If organics are detected, they may provide evidence for current life. SHERLOC will be able to drill holes to look for subsurface organic material coming from life not directly exposed on the surface.
[Image Credit: NASA]
Other instruments will include the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) which will provide data on atmospheric measurements such as temperature, wind speed, humidity, pressure, and Martian dust characteristics. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) will use ground-penetrating radar to provide subsurface geological information.
Another piece of equipment, the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), will be tested for use in producing oxygen from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a preliminary step to determine what methods could be used to provide oxygen for future manned missions. This is part of the effort to evaluate the natural resources on Mars to determine what resources the environment can provide for long-term missions in the future, and to assess the potential risk to humans. The ability to live-off-the-Martian-land will be critical to such missions.
In addition to collecting scientific data with these instruments, the 2020 rover will collect rock and soil samples for retrieval during future missions. The prospect that samples collected by the 2020 Mars Rover may someday be picked up by a manned mission a few years later is innovative and dramatic.
There is much construction and developmental work to be done to enable a 2020 launch of the next Mars Rover but once it arrives at its destination, it promises to markedly advance the goal of landing humans on the Red Planet as well as providing evidence of life, past and perhaps even present.
[Featured Image Credit: NASA]