Space is the final frontier. And if NASA has its way, its new Mars rover may be able to go where no man has gone before and find signs of ancient life – and not just ones that lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
NASA is working on the next version of its Curiosity Mars rover, according to a announcement made this week. The new rover will look a lot like its predecessor, but will have a very different mission, including looking for signs of ancient life in terrain that is presently inhospitable, but had lakes and rivers 3.5 billion years ago.
The rover, dubbed Mars 2020, will look for signs of microbial life using tools such as an x-ray spectrometer that can look for spots the size of a gain of table salt. It will also have an ultraviolet laser used to detect what NASA describes as “the ‘glow’ from excited rings of carbon atoms.” There will also be ground-penetrating radar to look under the surface of Mars, including mapping layers of rock, water and ice up to 30 feet deep, all designed to help NASA stay on target.
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“Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Mars 2020’s project scientist Ken Farley. “What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we’re alone in the universe.”
The new rover will come with seven new instruments, new wheels and additional autonomy, the government agency announced. Approximately 85 percent of the Mars 2020 rover will be based on the original Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012.
“The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed — or even already exists — is a major advantage for this mission,” Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, added. “It saves us money, time and most of all, reduces risk.”
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The Mars Curiosity rover cost an estimated $2.5 billion in 2012 dollars, according to various media reports. In 2016, NASA officials said the Mars 2020 rover mission would cost $2.1 billion, according to Space News.
In addition to the aforementioned features, the new rover will also sport a drill used to “capture rock cores, while a caching system with a miniature robotic arm will seal up these samples.”
Other upgrades include a new cruise stage so the rover can fly to Mars and new landing technology (JPL describes it as a “sky crane), color cameras, a zoom lens and a laser to vaporize rocks and soil to analyze their chemistry.
“Our next instruments will build on the success of [Mars Science Laboratory], which was a proving ground for new technology,” said George Tahu, NASA’s Mars 2020 program executive. “These will gather science data in ways that weren’t possible before.”