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NASA Mars 2020 Rover Details Emerge

Curiosity's successor will have a similar design but better instruments for detecting signs of past life on Mars.
NASA's Next 5 Missions
NASA's Next 5 Missions
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NASA's next Mars rover, due to launch in 2020, will look a lot like its predecessor, Curiosity, on the outside. But on the inside, the six-wheeled vehicle will contain new data-intensive, power-efficient scientific instruments that will help scientists search for signs of past life on the Red Planet.

A report released by the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team on Tuesday outlines scientific objectives for the mission. NASA appointed the team of 19 scientists and engineers from universities and research organizations in January. The mission concept proposed in the report addresses President Obama's goal to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, as well as some high-priority planetary science objectives.

"The objectives determined by NASA with the input from this team will become the basis later this year for soliciting proposals to provide instruments to be part of the science payload," NASA's associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said in a written statement.

[ How does space exploration spill over into everyday usefulness? Read 10 Space Technologies That Help On Earth. ]

The proposals will be submitted as part of an open competition for the payload and science instruments, which will then be placed on the new Mars rover. Potential instruments highlighted in the report include those that could acquire data quickly and those that minimize power consumption. The report also describes instruments that have low operational complexity, such as those that can keep themselves safe without intervention from an operator.

The instruments would allow the rover to explore Mars' environment on a microscopic level through visual, mineralogical and chemical analysis. Essentially, it would be searching for biosignatures or features in the rocks and soil that could have been formed biologically. As a comparison, Curiosity has a dozen high-tech instruments that allow the rover to touch, scoop, sift, clean and analyze rocks and dirt.

The Science Definition Team has suggested that the 2020 Mars rover collect as many as 31 samples of rocks and soil to later bring back to Earth for more conclusive analysis. Laboratories on Earth are better equipped to closely examine such samples, despite the rover's sophisticated technology, NASA said. The findings could help scientists not only search for possibilities of past life, but also understand any hazards posed by the Martian environment. Resources from Mars, such as rocks, could be used to generate fuel or other parts that would enable future human exploration.

Curiosity landed on Mars almost a year ago, and has since been snapping pictures of the planet and collecting samples. In March, Curiosity used its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments to test dust that the rover had created from sedimentary rock. After suffering two on-board computer problems and taking a four-week break due to a "solar conjunction," the rover went back to work in May, drilling a second Martian rock sample. Curiosity's findings suggest that conditions necessary to support life once existed on Mars. The rover is now traveling to Mount Sharp, the mission's main destination.