Curiosity, NASA’s most recent Mars rover, has given science many gifts since it landed on the planet in August 2012. Its discoveries on Mars have allowed scientists to better understand the red planet.
Recently, NASA announced plans for a new mission, dubbed Mars 2020 for the year it will launch.
NASA had invited scientists and engineers from around the world to send ideas for instruments that the new rover would carry. Of the 58 proposals received in March, seven were selected and announced in August.
These seven scientific instruments will not only look for signs of ancient life, but will also run experiments to test if the planet can be habited by humans. The information from Mars 2020 will hopefully bring us closer to launching human missions to Mars.
The Problem With Curiosity
Although Mars 2020 will look a lot like Curiosity, scientists are working on improvements to the design. Curiosity had quite the problem landing on Mars, and has had many issues with its wheels since.
In July of last year, Curiosity started on a six-mile trek to the summit of Mount Sharp - a three-mile high mountain on Mars. Scientists wanted to analyze the soil and understand the changing environment as the rover climbs up.
The journey, however, has been anything but smooth. The sharp rocks embedded in the Martian landscape have punctured and torn Curiosity's wheels. Scientists were surprised at the extent of damage, and set the rover on an alternate path. That terrain ended up being too sandy and hard to navigate. Now, scientists are exploring yet another route that is not too rocky.
Mars 2020 will have the best technology NASA can build. The ground-penetrating radar will be used to analyze the planet’s geology and can see 1,000 feet below the surface. It is also capable of detecting ice or water below the surface.
Two arm mounted gadgets will analyze the chemistry and structure of soil and rocks. The ChemCam will determine the mineral and organic materials from a section of rock as small as the width of a human hair. 3D cameras and a drill to take core samples of rock will also be mounted on the rover. Another set of sensors will capture measurements such as temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape.
The most exciting gadget on Mars 2020 will be MOXIE - an experimental oxygen generator, designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Normal fuel cells combine fuel with oxygen to produce electricity. MOXIE will be a reverse fuel cell that will use electricity and carbon dioxide from the Martian air to produce oxygen.
If preliminary experiments are successful, large scale oxygen production systems could be installed on Mars to support human pioneers. Imagine that - perhaps one day Mars may host life once again!