It should be, by now, little news to my close friends that I grew up in a NASA household: my parents and my uncle worked at the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena. My mom worked in Deep Space planning, working with scientists and NASA administrators to assemble the proposals for Galileo, Cassini and the other deep space probes that are now exploring our galaxy (and giving Neil Degrasse Tyson the data he needed to defend stripping Pluto of its planetary status!). My step-dad was "Ye olde atomic clock maker", crafting the hydrogen and, later, cesium masers that were the timing devices used on earth to track objects in space. My uncle did things like launch humungous balloons in the stratosphere to learn about our planet's outer gaseous layers, and he played with lasers (no word on whether they effectively cooked cornish game hens in the lab...). I remember my buddy Dan Gianopulos' dad was the project manager for Viking, the first probe NASA sent to Mars and, boy oh boy, were we all excited about that.
So, it should also be no surprise that I continue to follow the exploits of NASA with some interest and I'm very excited that they are planning the nest mission to Mars.NASA plans to send a new rover to Mars in 2020. And while its body will look very similar to the Curiosity robot already rolling across Mars, yesterday NASA officials outlined the scientific instruments the rover will carry that give it a totally new set of capabilities.
The 2020 rover will complement Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity’s missions to determine if life ever could have or did exist on Mars, but will also help humans come into contact with Martian soil for the first time. It will carry a caching system for storing interesting rock samples that could someday be carried back to Earth for analysis. The rover will also be capable of generating oxygen, which will help NASA determine how much and how fast it can generate breathable air for future human visitors to the planet. Oxygen can also be used to generate rocket fuel.
The 2020 rover will also carry instruments for analyzing the air, soil and ground. Its camera will zoom, which would allow the robot to quickly develop a model of its surroundings to plot a path forward. That will allow it to travel longer distances more safely.
One big first is the rover will carry radar equipment for underground imaging. Curiosity already can drill samples, but the new rover will be able to peer more than 1,600 feet underground. Other instruments will help the robot map the composition of rock and image it at the scale that microbial life occurs. So if there is life on Mars, the rover should be able to spot it.
“We’ve built up this question that drives so much of what we do at NASA: Are we alone in our solar system, in our universe?” NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said. “I can’t wait. 2020 can’t get here soon enough.”