NASA's next Mars rover will seek signs of life

Set for launch in 2020, robotic rover may answer key question: Were we always alone?

The next robotic rover NASA sends to explore Mars should have a different set of scientific tools to help it search for signs of past life and collect rocks and soil samples that future missions can send back to Earth.

That's the basic outline from a NASA-backed panel, made up of 19 scientists and engineers from universities and research organizations, tasked with coming up with a plan for the next major robotic rover mission, which is scheduled to head to the Martian surface in 2020.

The space agency released the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team's 154-page report on Tuesday, noting that the next rover to explore Mars should be a significant step on the road to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

And it could be a major step in answering a fundamental question about the universe: Is there life beyond Earth?

"Crafting the science and exploration goals is a crucial milestone in preparing for our next major Mars mission," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science. "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 on this exciting step in Mars exploration."

The next rover will be a successor to Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and, the latest to work on the Red Planet, Curiosity, which landed on Mars last August.

The new rover will look a lot like Curiosity, which has been considered a super rover since it's as big as an SUV, is nuclear-powered and has 10 scientific instruments. This new rover will have a Curiosity-like chassis and will even use some "spare parts" left over from the construction of Curiosity.

The panel noted that using Curiosity's design will help minimize mission costs and risks and deliver a rover that has proven itself capable of traversing the Martian surface.

The space agency plans to conduct an open competition for the payload and science instruments.

Scientists hope this next rover will build on the findings made by Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, along with several exploration orbiters.

Curiosity, for instance, found evidence last September, less than two months into its work on the planet, that Mars once had a "vigorous" flow of water on its surface.

By discovering an ancient water flow, scientists knew that Mars once held a key ingredient in the ability to support life, even in microbial form.

The next rover will be focused on, not whether Mars could have supported life, but whether it indeed ever did.

The new rover would be built to handle visual, mineralogical and chemical analysis down to a microscopic scale to identify biosignatures, or features in the rocks and soil that could have been formed biologically.

"The Mars 2020 mission concept does not presume that life ever existed on Mars," said Jack Mustard, chairman of the Science Definition Team. "However, given the recent Curiosity findings, past Martian life seems possible, and we should begin the difficult endeavor of seeking the signs of life. No matter what we learn, we would make significant progress in understanding the circumstances of early life existing on Earth and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life."

For the next Mars rover, NASA engineers plan to re-use the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity but would add new science instruments needed for its 2020 mission. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This article, NASA's next Mars rover will seek signs of life, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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This story, "NASA's next Mars rover will seek signs of life" was originally published by Computerworld.

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