Last December, NASA announced plans to go Mars with another rover mission in 2020. The news came via John Grunsfeld, NASA associate science administrator, at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Now, seven months later, objectives are becoming more concrete. First on the 2020 rover’s agenda: look for signs of life.
While nearly a decade in the future, NASA is planning to have its next rover pave the way for a sample return mission wherein samples of Martian soil are returned to Earth for scientific analysis. For many in the scientific community, such a mission is considered to look for traces of life, past or present. According to Grunsfeld, the landing site, though not determined as of now, will be chosen for its ability to preserve signs of life.
As for the rover itself, a lot of details are up in the air here, too. One thing is certain: the basic design will be based off of the current Curiosity in order to help rein in the costs to about $1.5 billion (vs. $2.5 billion for Curiosity) to accommodate announced and expected budget cuts. As for what experiments this rover will pack, that will be determined by a panel of top scientists in the coming months.
As for the current mission, Curiosity represents the next generation of Mars rovers, serving as a successor to Spirit and Opportunity (landed 2004), which served as successors to Sojourner (landed 1997). Curiosity is, by far, the most ambitious Mars mission yet and will attempt to discover whether Mars ever was home to/was once suitable for life. The 8 main objectives of the mission are as follows:
1. Determine the nature/amount of organic compounds
2. Identify the building blocks of life as we know it
3. Look for traces of past life
4. Investigate Martian geology
5. Discover how rocks/soils were formed
6. Assess atmospheric evolution
7. Try and understand the current water cycle
8. Identify the surface radiation from the Sun
In terms of what the rover has to offer, it is truly breathtaking.
To start with, the rover will be powered nuclear, rather than solar energy like its predecessors, which means that Curiosity will be able to operate year-round. The rover will carry 3 cameras, a laser several spectrometers, a sampling tool, a radiation detector, atmospheric assessment tools, water detector, as well as navigation cameras designed to help the rover act autonomously by helping it avoid hazards on the Martian surface.
For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more than the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship mission for the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA’s future plans thanks to extensive budget cuts However, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which is to see its planetary science budget drastically cut for the 2013 fiscal year.
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