NASA’s next Mars rover will generate oxygen and collect rocks to bring back to Earth

Sketch of 2020 Mars rover

NASA plans to send a new rover to Mars in just six years. And while its body will look very similar to the Curiosity robot already rolling across Mars‘ surface, today NASA officials outlined the scientific instruments the rover will carry that give it a totally new set of abilities.

The 2020 rover will complement Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity’s missions to determine if life ever could have or did exist on Mars, but will also help humans come into contact with Martian soil for the first time. It will carry a caching system for storing interesting rock samples that could someday be carried back to Earth for analysis. The rover will also be capable of generating oxygen, which will help NASA determine how much and how fast it can generate breathable air for future human visitors to the planet. Oxygen can also be used to generate rocket fuel.

Photo courtesy of NASA

Photo courtesy of NASA

“We have a fantastic grouping of instruments where the selection of the instruments was to maximize the science capability of the rover itself,” Mars Exploration Program lead scientist Michael Meyer said during the teleconference. “This is a real step forward for future human missions on Mars.”

The 2020 rover will also carry instruments for analyzing the air, soil and ground. Its camera will zoom, which would allow the robot to quickly develop a model of its surroundings to plot a path forward. That will allow it to travel longer distances more safely.

Images of the elemental composition of rock. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Images of the elemental composition of rock. Photo courtesy of NASA.

One big first is the rover will carry radar equipment for underground imaging. Curiosity already can drill samples, but the new rover will be able to peer more than 1,600 feet underground. Other instruments will help the robot map the composition of rock and image it at the scale that microbial life occurs. So if there is life on Mars, the rover should be able to spot it.

“We’ve built up this question that drives so much of what we do at NASA: Are we alone in our solar system, in our universe?” NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said. “I can’t wait. 2020 can’t get here soon enough.”

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