Curiosity has captivated space enthusiasts and roved around Mars since 2012, collecting and analyzing data on the mysterious red planet. NASA is now planning another rover mission for 2020. Data collected by Curiosity and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (Maven) satellite, along with other current and past missions is helping scientist choose the best landing site for the new rover. And while the new rover will look very similar to Curiosity, with the aim of reducing cost and saving time, the instruments onboard are a new generation of science and technology.
The landing site for the new rover is a region that scientists believe microbial life could have existed in Mars’ past, before the atmosphere was destroyed by radiation from the Sun. The new rover will collect and analyze samples like its counterpart with a core drill and sample tubes, some of these samples will be deposited in select locations for retrieval on future missions so they may be tested back on Earth. Scientist are hoping to find evidence that life was once possible on the planet, but also to see what resources are available for future manned missions as well as possible hazards they will encounter.
Imaging the Martian surface will always be a priority along with spectroscopy for the rover to analyze rock composition from afar and then decide which materials to examine at close range. Ground penetrating radar will collect information on the geologic structures below the surface. Numerous sensors will monitor weather and dust conditions. For the first time, a microphone will be attached to the rover, coupled with the imaging systems, researchers will be able to see and hear the lander as it enters the Martian atmosphere, descends and lands on the planet. While these systems will have all been tested on Earth, no one has ever seen this sequence take place in situ.
The new Mars rover will join NASA’s Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations (InSight) lander, which is scheduled to launch in 2018 after the initial launch in 2016 had to be postponed due to an instrument malfunction. InSight’s mission is to probe into the deep interior of Mars in order to better understand how rocky planets like ours formed and evolved. It may seem silly to send a scientific instrument to Mars to better understand our own planet; however, Mars differs from Earth in that it doesn’t have plate tectonics and is less geologically active, leaving much of its geologic history still intact. The lander will be a permanent fixture on Mars, measuring seismic waves, temperature, the planet’s wobble and surface activity. Exploring Mars is one of NASA’s prime goals, not just to find evidence of alien life but to better understand the origins of our own planet and its evolution. These missions are only the beginning of the exploration of our galaxy and beyond.