NASA announced today that it is sending another rover to Mars in 2020, equipped with seven new instruments that will ultimately pave the way for human missions. The one called “SHERLOC” will be looking for life.
Provisionally called the Mars 2020 rover, our latest robot to be sent to the red planet will be outfitted with seven new instruments that will set it apart from the other rovers currently surveying Mars–Curiosity and Opportunity. NASA had to sort through 58 potential instruments, from drills to lasers to mass spectrometers, which was more than twice the submissions NASA has gotten in the past from interested scientists and engineers before the seven were chosen. All in all, the Mars 2020 rover’s gear will have a price tag of around 130 million dollars.
This new rover is the next step in Martian exploration. Its overall design won’t be a large departure from the design and operation of the very successful Curiosity rover, but when it finally gets red dust on its earthen treads it will be able to advance the science of Mars beyond what Curiosity is capable of. For example, Mars 2020 will analyze the geologic composition of Mars more thoroughly, letting us know our chances of actually squeezing oxygen, water, or other vital materials out of the land. If Mars 2020 eventually finds a rock or soil sample particularly exciting, NASA is also considering bringing those samples back to Earth for study!
“Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry,” said NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier in the press release. “Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible.”
Here are the seven selected instruments that will adorn Mars 2020, hopefully giving us a better idea of what a human exploration of Mars needs:
Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom.
SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. The instrument will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith from a distance.
Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that will also contain an imager with high resolution to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials.
Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds.
The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape.
The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface.
Sensors like these can tell us if Mars is truly a place we can conquer. For example, if this technology shows that we could siphon off Martian atmosphere to make pure oxygen or rocket oxidizers–as NASA plans to try–it would completely change what and maybe who we send next. But before we send humans, it’s possible that instruments such as SHERLOC will find the organic signatures of past or present life on Mars. It would be the most important discovery in human history.
Even if Mars 2020 doesn’t find life, it will help us figure out how to get it there.