NASA’s next Mars Rover will search for life

The search for little green men on Mars has been a hot topic for science fiction since practically forever, but NASA’s next remote exploration vehicle will well and truly search staring from 2020.

A new explorer for Earth is in development, scheduled to launch four years from now in 2020 with a different mission from the current Mars rover “Curiosity”, and signs of life are the main reason this thing is being built.

While it’s doubtful that NASA will dig up obvious signs of green men big or small, the new rover is being built with seven “carefully selected instruments” aimed at “unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations” for Mars.

“While getting to and landing on Mars is hard, Curiosity was an iconic example of how our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way for humans to pioneer Mars and beyond,” said Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator.

“Mars exploration will be this generation’s legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans’ journey to the Red Planet.”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The new rover will be used to analyse rock and soil on Mars that could potentially be sent back to our own planet on a later mission, and even help shape how we colonise and make habitable the extreme martian environment that is Mars.

While the rover itself will be specifically designed to be a more modern version of what NASA has sent the way of the red planet before — or more modern than what is currently up there — the new 2020 edition will include a new camera able to capture panoramic images in 3D that will help define and explain Mars rocks and minerals (Mastcam-Z), as well as a separate instrument that will break down those minerals for chemical composition analysis while looking for organic compounds at a distance (SuperCam).

Five other instruments will be included, and these include an x-ray capable of looking at the elements of the surface more closely (PIXL), a spectrometer with an ultraviolet laser to search for organic compounds (SHERLOC), and a radar capable of penetrating the surface of Mars and looking at what is below (RIMFAX).

If all of this seems like a lot of mumbo jumbo and jargon, it is, but it all also adds up to a lot of science and technology designed to help the boffins at NASA determine not only if life once lived on Mars, but how to terraform the planet and possibly get it back there again, with humans the next likely residents.

“We are excited that NASA’s Space Technology Program is partnered with Human Exploration and the Mars 2020 Rover Team to demonstrate our abilities to harvest the Mars atmosphere and convert its abundant carbon dioxide to pure oxygen,” said James Reuther, Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs for the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

“This technology demonstration will pave the way for more affordable human missions to Mars where oxygen is needed for life support and rocket propulsion.”

Worth noting is that the 2020 Mars rover won’t be the only thing we send the way of Mars in the next five years, with Mars InSight launching this year to scan the interior of Mars, hot on the heels of the current Curiosity rover having just finished almost two Earth years on the surface (687 days) and completing its goal of working out whether Mars once had environmental conditions favourable for life, even if it is microbial.

The next mission will be to see whether it still can, and while it is still four years away from launching, suspect this isn’t the last we’ll hear about a new Mars rover this year, especially as Curiosity is still working away, a lone explorer on the red planet so far from our own.