“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — that seems to be the idea behind the designs for NASA’s next Mars mission, which will put yet another rover on the Red Planet in 2020. Drawing on the developments from previous rovers — Spirit, Opportunity, and especially Curiosity — the next robotic explorer will feature a similar construction but with a brand-new suite of science instruments dedicated to hunting for evidence of past biology within Mars’ rocks… and potentially even select some of those samples to be returned back to Earth.
“It’s a whole planet up there with a complicated history… that history is a story that’s stored in the rocks and our job is to figure out that story, and what that story of that planet tells us about this planet.”
– Jim Bell, Science Definition Team Member, ASU
NASA appointed a Mars 2020 Science Definition Team in January to outline scientific objectives for the 2020 mission. The team, composed of 19 scientists and engineers from universities and research organizations, proposed a concept that could accomplish several high-priority planetary science goals and be a major step in meeting President Obama’s challenge to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
“Crafting the science and exploration goals is a crucial milestone in preparing for our next major Mars mission,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington. “The objectives determined by NASA with the input from this team will become the basis later this year for soliciting proposals to provide instruments to be part of the science payload on this exciting step in Mars exploration.”
NASA will conduct an open competition for the payload and science instruments. They will be placed on a rover similar to Curiosity, which landed on Mars almost a year ago. Using Curiosity’s design will help minimize mission costs and risks and deliver a rover that can accomplish the mission objectives.
The 2020 mission proposed by the Science Definition Team would build upon the accomplishments of Curiosity and other Mars missions. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, along with several orbiters, found evidence Mars has a watery history. Curiosity recently confirmed that past environmental conditions on Mars could have supported living microbes. According to the Science Definition Team, looking for signs of past life is the next logical step.
“The Mars 2020 mission concept does not presume that life ever existed on Mars,” said Jack Mustard, chairman of the Science Definition Team and a professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “However, given the recent Curiosity findings, past Martian life seems possible, and we should begin the difficult endeavor of seeking the signs of life. No matter what we learn, we would make significant progress in understanding the circumstances of early life existing on Earth and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life.”
“Curiosity found evidence that the surface of Mars was habitable at some point, which was a phenomenally important find. Now we want a rover that can look for actual signs of those inhabitants.”
– Jack Mustard, Brown University Geological Sciences professor