NASA plans next-gen scientific tools for 2020 Mars rover

Rover's instruments will try to make oxygen, search for minerals and signs of past life

NASA has planned out the new and improved scientific instruments that will be included onboard the next robotic Mars rover. The instruments will be used to search for signs of past life and and to make oxygen and rocket fuel on the Red Planet.

"This is really going to take our understanding of Mars to the next level," said Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist, during a press conference today. "We've built up this incredible portrait of Mars as this potentially habitable world. The Mars rover 2020 will take us to the next step in helping us understand if we're alone in the solar system, in our universe."

NASA's Mars rover 2020 will use the same body design as previous rovers, but it will carry seven new scientific instruments. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

The space agency plans to send its next robotic rover to Mars in the summer of 2020. This rover will search for signs of past life and collect rocks and soil samples that future missions could potentially send back to Earth. It also will try out new technology that future missions to Mars, that include human astronauts, might be able to use.

John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said the budget for building the next rover is expected to come in at $1.9 billion, with a U.S. investment of $130 million.

NASA previously held a competition for scientists to submit proposals for research and exploration instruments that would be installed on the new rover, dubbed 2020 rover, and today announced the seven instruments that were selected.

The rover, which will be about the same size and weight as NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, will hold two high-tech cameras on its mast. One, which will have a powerful zoom capability, will be able to take panoramic and stereoscopic imaging. The other can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis and mineralogy measurements.

One of the new instruments, which will sit on the body of the rover, is called a Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration, also known as RIMFAX. This instrument will perform ground-penetrating radar that can go a half a kilometer below the surface.

Another instrument, dubbed MOXIE, will take carbon dioxide out of the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen for humans one day working on Mars. It also could be used to make rocket fuel, NASA said.

"We have a fantastic grouping of instruments that maximize the science capabilities of the rover itself," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "No measurement of chemistry, organics or mechanics is done by only one instrument. They overlap and complement each other. They look at the measurements different ways."

He added that the payload of instruments has an international representation, with more than 50 institutions worldwide involved in their design and creation.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, said there's a lot of interest in the rover's attempting to create oxygen on the Red Planet.

"Can we actually produce oxygen and at what rates can we produce it?" he asked. "If we can get oxygen that you don't have to carry to Mars, that changes everything. If we can create oxygen and have it sitting in tanks waiting for astronauts to get there, that changes everything... This is kind of the first step to go look at oxygen."

The oxygen, besides playing a critical role in creating breathable air and rocket propellant, also could be used to grow food on Mars.

"We've seen water on Mars so we can make oxygen and hydrogen out of that, and we can use the water itself," Gerstenmaier said. "And all of that can be used to grow vegetation that you might need on Mars... The first step, though, is a fairly simple one. Let's see what we can do with oxygen first and then we'll look at other steps."

Rover 2020 also will have a greater focus on studying mineralogy on Mars because the planet's minerals will play a key role in helping scientists unravel its secrets.

"Some minerals require water to be made," Stofan said. "So if there are certain minerals present, it shows us that there was water there."

Grunsfeld said minerals also differ depending on the pressure and environment in which they were formed.

"The [planet's] words and its story are written in minerals," he noted. "This rover will look at the minerals and tell us about the history of Mars, the story of Mars."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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