NASA wants to bring back hunks of Mars in future unmanned mission

More advanced experiments, technology, instruments all part of proposed NASA Mars 2020 mission

nasa 2020 rover
The space missions to Mars have so far been one way - satellites and robotic rovers have all gone up but not come back.  NASA, as part a of a new, ambitious Mars visit wants to change that by sending a rover to the surface of the Red Planet which can dig up chunks of the surface and send them back to Earth for highly detailed examination.

The notion of bringing back pieces of Mars to Earth is just one component of a planned 2020 mission to Mars that was outlined by the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team, which NASA appointed in January to outline scientific goals for the mission. The team, composed of 19 scientists and engineers from universities and research organizations, proposed a mission concept that could accomplish several high-priority planetary science goals and be a major step in meeting President Obama's challenge to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, NASA said.

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In a 154-page report the group laid out four broad objectives of the 2020 mission:

A. Explore an astrobiologically relevant ancient environment on Mars to decipher its geological processes and history, including the assessment of past habitability.

B. Assess the biosignature preservation potential within the selected geological environment and search for potential biosignatures.

C. Demonstrate significant technical progress towards the future return of scientifically selected, well-documented samples to Earth. The team is proposing the rover collect and package as many as 31 samples of rock cores and soil for a this or a later mission to bring back for more definitive analysis in laboratories on Earth.  A retrieval mission could occur as early as the mid-2020s or wait until the 2030s. Such timing would be determined by future budget availability and the technology capabilities that are developed in the coming years.

D. Provide an opportunity for contributed Human Exploration & Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) or Space Technology Program (STP) participation, compatible with the science payload and within the mission's payload capacity.

From the report:

'The chartering document of the 2020 Mars Rover Science Definition Team (SDT) contains a clear rationale to continue the pursuit of NASA's plans for 'Seeking the Signs of Life.' Addressing questions about habitability and the potential for life on Mars requires visiting a site with a geologic record that suggests both past habitability and a high probability to have preserved evidence of past life, had it occurred there, would still be preserved.

The search for such a site will require a combination of orbiter and ground observations to measure a wide range of surface properties, such as elemental chemistry, mineralogy, surface texture and structure, at a wide range of scales. The geologic record then must be explored for signs of past life. This can be done in situ at Mars only in a preliminary sense. Definitive detection of past life would require analysis of samples here on Earth given the likelihood that such life would have occurred only in microbial form. A logical next step in the Mars program is therefore to prepare the way for sample return."

NASA said the 2020 Mars rover would be based on the successful Curiosity design to minimize mission costs and risks.  It will be the instruments an sensors that differentiate the mission. There will be an open competition for the payload and science instruments that will provide visual, mineralogical and chemical analysis down to microscopic scale to understand the environment around its landing site and identify biosignatures, or features in the rocks and soil that could have been formed biologically.

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"The 2020 rover as proposed by the Science Definition Team would carry a different and more advanced set of science instruments than Curiosity carries, its drill would extract cores rather than blended powder from rocks, and it would collect and package samples for possible future return to Earth. The instrument payload will be selected through a competitive process, ensuring the best possible measurements to meet the mission objectives. In addition, many sites of particularly high scientific interest could become accessible for the first time because of advances in landing technology," the report stated.

The group says the envisioned 2020 measurement suite would shift away from bulk measurements and instead make higher resolution, spatially coordinated measurements of rock composition, texture and microstructure.

Another key component of the mission would be an experiment that would look for resources from the planet, such as minerals in the rocks or elements of the atmosphere could be used to generate fuel or other items that could help future planned human exploration.

"The 2020 mission would be a step toward return of Martian samples for analysis on Earth, which could be important in planning best ways to protect the health and safety of astronauts on Mars (for example, the properties of Martian dust and how it could affect astronauts and mechanical systems). Technologies under consideration for use during the final minutes before landing could improve the precision of targeting the landing location, an important capability for landing humans on Mars," the report stated.

The bottom line: The Mars 2020 mission would explore a site likely to have been habitable, seek signs of past life, fill a returnable cache with the most compelling samples, take the first steps towards onsite  resource utilization on Mars, and demonstrate technology needed for the future human and robotic exploration of Mars.

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