NASA’s next Mars rover will likely look very similar to Curiosity — the rover that landed on Mars last year and found that the red planet once had the ingredients to support basic organisms — but pack more advanced scientific equipment to look for signs of past life. A NASA appointed science team revealed goals and recommendations for the rover’s scheduled 2020 mission Tuesday during a press conference.
“NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers were sent a decade ago to seek evidence about past watery environments on Mars, and they succeeded,” the team wrote in their report. “Curiosity landed last year to seek evidence about past conditions that were favorable for life, and it has already succeeded. The next logical step in investigating whether Mars has ever supported life isto go to a promising landing site, study the rocks there, and seek possible signs of past life.”
The new rover will focus on detecting actual signs of life with more advanced chemistry, mineralogy, imaging and organic carbon detecting tools. A major goal will be to collect and store up to rock cores, which are more likely to contain preserved samples of past life than the powder Curiosity is capable of drilling out of rocks.
According to team chair Jack Mustard, if the rover discovers a biomarker, it won’t be scientifically accepted unless it is returned to and confirmed on Earth. NASA does not yet know how or when it would return cores, but they have already done several studies.
It is likely sample cores will first be collected by a robot that arrives on a craft capable of visiting and returning from the Martian surface. It’s also possible humans will beat a robot, or follow it shortly after. Experts raised several questions that NASA will have to answer first, such as how will we protect life on Earth from any dangerous organisms or materials that might return with the Mars samples?
The rover will have a body similar to Curiosity and land on Mars in the same way. NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said this will ensure the mission is as cost effective as possible. They also already know Curiosity is reliable.
NASA appointed the 19 person team of scientists and scientists and engineers in January. While their report will be heavily influential, NASA has the final say on the rover’s build and mission.
“We had a very fundamental question to answer, a question that has piqued the curiosity of astronomers and planetary scientists for a quite a while: Did Mars ever have life? Does Mars have life now?” Grunsfeld said.