Intriguing for the possibility that it may have once fostered life millions of years ago, Mars continues to tantalize scientists and researchers across the globe. Much of the study surrounding the so-called red planet has been spearheaded by NASA, beginning with simple probe flybys and escalating to unmanned terrestrial missions by remote control robots. NASA is once again tackling the fourth planet from the Sun with an all-new rover scheduled to be launched in the next few years.
This week NASA announced they have begun work on the next iteration of their Curiosity Mars rover series. While the new rover will use similar technology to its predecessor, the space agency has a decidedly different set of missions for the vehicle. This time, astronomers hope to trawl the planet’s surface for signs that Mars may have once harbored life in the distant past.
Already nicknamed Mars 2020, the rover is destined to search the planet’s surface for any evidence of tiny microbial organisms which would have thrived if Mars, as scientists believe, once held large pools of liquid water. The rover will accomplish its investigation through the use of a full suite of tools, including a spectrometer capable of analysing subjects as tiny as a single grain of salt. The rover will also have ground penetrating radar used to view water, rocks, and ice 30 feet beneath the planet’s surface, along with an ultraviolet laser that can detect atoms in surface air.
All told, despite 85 percent of the vehicle being based on the last version, the 2020 rover is equipped with seven all-new instruments, along with better maneuvering and more effective wheels. It will also include a robotic arm equipped with a small but powerful drill, enabling it to take core samples from surface rocks. The 2020 has better cameras than its predecessor, meaning space enthusiasts can looking forward to higher definition, full color photos of the planet’s surface. It even possesses a laser capable of vaporizing soil and rock samples so that the accompanying sensors can analyze their chemical composition.
Ken Farley, the project scientist in charge of the Mars 2020 mission, says finding if Mars ever harbored life is one of the most profound mysteries hoping to be uncovered by NASA and their associated Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The project is expected to run the space agency about $2.1 billion, somewhat cheaper than the last mission, which ran around $2.5 billion in 2012.