A scientific panel today gave NASA a blueprint for the kind of rover that it should send to Mars in 2020. If NASA were to follow the panel's recommendations, the 2020 rover would look a lot like Curiosity, which is now surveying the planet. But it would have a host of new capabilities to enable a detailed investigation of the martian surface. And it would aim to create a cache of martian soil samples that could be brought back to Earth in the future.
Images taken by Curiosity, which landed on the martian surface in August last year, has confirmed that water once flowed on Mars. This November, NASA will launch a spacecraft that will orbit Mars and study its upper atmosphere. But, as John Grunsfeld, the chief of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, noted in a telecom with reporters this afternoon, "the action really is still on the surface of Mars. We really need to go back to the surface and go to the next stage in answering whether there was ever any life on Mars."
That's why, 6 months ago, Grunsfeld tasked a science definition team to outline the concept for a 2020 mission to explore Mars. That team, led by Brown University planetary scientist John Mustard, has now delivered a report that lays out what the next rover should be equipped to do.
Mustard and his colleagues want the rover to have instruments that will not only take broad pictures of sites on the surface—as Curiosity is doing—but also take more detailed images of rocks and geological features. They are also recommending instrumentation that would allow for fine-scale imaging and fine-scale mineralogy, especially of rocks through which water might have flown in the past. In addition, they are calling for instruments that would enable chemical analysis and the detection of organic carbon. And, finally, the team is recommending that the rover be equipped with technology to drill rocks and create a cache of at least 31 samples for later recovery.
Together, these capabilities would give scientists "an incredibly powerful set of tools" to seek out evidence of past life on Mars, Mustard said at the conference. And the cached samples—if ever brought back to Earth—"would address an enormous number of science questions" not just about the possible existence of life on Mars, but also its evolution as a habitable environment, he said.
The team notes in the report that the rover should be modeled on Curiosity to keep costs down. Agency officials expect that the rover could be built for $1.5 billion, about $1 billion less than what Curiosity cost, in large part because engineers now know what works and what doesn't.
Still, whether there will be enough money for NASA to begin seriously planning for the 2020 mission is another question. Nonetheless, Jim Green—the head of NASA's planetary sciences division—indicated at today's conference that the agency expects to invite proposals for designing science instruments for the rover, based on the report's recommendations.