NASA is gearing up to send its next rover to Mars, with the hope it can discover if there was ever life on the Red Planet.
Currently, the vehicle is simply called the Mars 2020 rover, based on the year it will launch, with an arrival scheduled for early 2021. It’ll be given a proper name in the future.
The rover looks similar to its predecessor, Curiosity, which is currently on the surface of the Red Planet. But it will carry a new suite of instruments that will tell us more about life on Mars than ever before.
"Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer," Ken Farley of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and Mars 2020's project scientist, said in a statement. "What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we're alone in the universe."
The suite of instruments on board the rover will include a drill that will collect samples of rock. A miniature arm will seal these samples in small containers, with the idea that a future mission will collect them from the surface and return them to Earth so they can be studied.
To look for biosignatures at a microbial scale, the rover has an X-ray spectrometer to target spots as small as a grain of table salt. An ultraviolet laser will be used to detect the glow from carbon atoms, while a ground-penetrating radar will look under the surface of Mars for signs of water and ice up to 10 meters (33 feet) deep.
It’ll also have an impressive 23 cameras, compared to Curiosity’s 17. This will let it image the surface of the Red Planet like never before.
It’s the life-finding aspect of the mission that is most exciting, though. The mission won’t be looking for current life per se, but it will hopefully tell us more about ancient life on Mars.
Three locations are currently being considered for the rover to explore, each with features – from hot springs to ancient lakebeds – that make them interesting. Where it lands, the Mars 2020 rover will then leave up to 40 rock samples behind, ready to be picked up by a future sample return mission and taken back to Earth.
This isn’t the only mission going to Mars in the near future. NASA’s Insight mission is scheduled to launch in 2018, while Mars 2020 will be joined on the surface by ESA’s ExoMars rover, which will land at a similar time. It, too, will look for signs of life. One way or another, we’re getting closer to an answer.