Here's What NASA's Next Mars Rover Will Do

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NASA’s next Mars rover may look a lot like Curiosity; a six-wheeled Mini Cooper-sized robot designed to assess if the planet most like Earth in the solar system ever had habitats suitable for life. (It does!)

But the still unnamed follow-on vehicle, targeted for launch in 2020, will have a very different suite of instruments aboard.

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From 58 proposals, NASA on Thursday selected seven science instruments that will be used to delve deeper into questions about the existence of life beyond Earth.

Definitive answers may come only after carefully selected samples are back in Earth laboratories, so one of the key goals of the Mars 2020 rover mission is to identify, collect and cache samples for eventual analysis on Earth.

To that effort, the new rover will have dual multispectral zoom cameras, called Mastcam-Z, designed to provide broadband red/green/blue color imaging as well as narrow-band visible to short-wave near-infrared sensitivity.

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The cameras’ zoom feature will be capable of resolving features as small as about 1 millimeter in size in the near field and about 3- to 4 centimeters from 100 meters away. Scientists will use the cameras to navigate the rover, collect samples and study rocks and soil.

In addition to still images, the cameras can shoot video, which will enable them to capture dynamic phenomena such as swirling dust devils, drifting Martian clouds, passing comets and other astronomical events.

Complementing Mastcam-Z is SuperCam, which will be able to take pictures and determine the chemical composition and mineralogy of target rocks and regolith — including the presence of organic compounds from a distance. For closer inspections, scientists can tap two instruments flying to Mars for the first time. They are:

  • The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager that can reveal fine-scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials, and
  • The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), another spectrometer which uses a ultraviolet laser for fine-scale mineralogy and to detect organic compounds.

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Another instrument is less concerned about past life on Mars than life to come, namely humans. Toward that goal, NASA’s human space exploration program is backing a technology demonstration to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere. The experiment is called MOXIE, an acronym for  Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment.

Rounding out the Mars 2020 payload are two instruments to assess the Martian environment and to study what is beneath its surface.

The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) is a set of sensors to measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure and relative humidity, as well as the size and shape of dust. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX) is a ground-penetrating radar that can provide centimeter-scale resolution of the planet’s interior.

In all, NASA plans to spend about $130 million to develop the seven instruments.