Life on Mars Will Have a Harder Time Hiding from NASA’s New Rover5 min read

Go ahead and pencil in February 18, 2021 on your calendars, because that’s when NASA’s next Mars rover is due to land on the Martian surface.

A sketch of the Mars 2020 rover design. Image: NASA

A sketch of the Mars 2020 rover design. Image: NASA

The Mars 2020 rover is essentially a souped-up version of the Curiosity rover currently roaming the Red Planet. The 2020 rover is estimated to cost $1.9 billion dollars and will carry a suite of 7 specialized instruments that will science the hell out of Mars. A mission of this magnitude takes years of planning, and in order to ensure its success mission managers are learning from experience.

Based on knowledge about the Martian environment gained from Curiosity, NASA is building the next version to even better fit the environment. Equipped with one-of-a-kind sensors, the 2020 rover will provide new insight in the habitability of Mars.

At this year’s meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Earth and Space conference, Luther Beegle, principal investigator for the SHERLOC instrument on Mars 2020 and deputy section manager of planetary science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spoke about the importance of this mission.

Drill holes from Curiosity's first sample drilling on Mars. Image: NASA

Drill holes from Curiosity’s first sample drilling on Mars. Image: NASA

“Our goal is to do great in-situ science,” he explained to Motherboard after the meeting. “We need to characterize samples and know exactly where they came from. We have pieces of Mars (meteorites) all over Earth, but the problem with them is they have been altered (via processes like impacts) and we don’t know where they came from.”

This mission will allow us to study the habitability of Mars and collect samples for later return to Earth. Building on Curiosity’s success, the 2020 rover will use a lot of the same hardware on the as Curiosity. Mars 2020 will even have its own seven minutes of terror as it will land on Mars the same way Curiosity did.

“It looks like an identical copy of the Curiosity rover to the unengineered eye,” said Beegle. “But there’s a good reason for that.” Building a rover from scratch is extremely difficult. By making the 2020 rover as close to an exact copy of Curiosity as possible, NASA can use existing technologies and reduce the cost of the mission, while still adding capabilities.

For example, both Curiosity and Mars 2020 are equipped with drills. While Curiosity feeds the fines (or drilled material) into its onboard laboratory for analysis, Mars 2020 will box up interesting samples to collect later. Beegle said this is not a sample return mission, but the start of a sample return campaign. When the rover finds interesting samples, it can use its drill to collect a sample which will be sealed in a container for a future rover to collect.

Planned instruments for the Mars 2020 rover. Image: NASA

Planned instruments for the Mars 2020 rover. Image: NASA

Curiosity just dug its tenth hole, and with each new hole bored into the Red Planet, scientists are learning more and more. However, the pump that runs one of the rover’s sample analyzers (called SAM) has a limited lifespan, so scientists have to pick and choose the material they analyze. Mars 2020 won’t have this worry as it can just package up a sample for later analysis.

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“We are using all of the lessons learned from Curiosity to design better operations and become more efficient,” Beegle told Motherboard. “We know a lot more about Martian chemistry and environment than when we were designing Curiosity, which is an advantage over previous missions. Normally, you have to make educated guesses on what you will find, and build the instrument around that.”

To help carry out its mission, Mars 2020 is packing a one-of-a-kind instrument known as the Scanning Habitable Environments with Rama & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals instrument, aka SHERLOC. This instrument will turn the rover into a planetary detective, able to hunt for biosignatures.

SHERLOC has two components: an imager and a laser spectrometer. The imager will tell us the state of the rover and properties of rocks, while the spectroscopy component searches for and identifies minerals found in aqueous environments as well as organic molecules. By understanding what type of organics formed where, scientists hope to find evidence that life could have existed on Mars.

“Mars had water for an extended period of time, so we can see evidence of lake beds, rivers, and oceans,” he explained. “We know there was lots of liquid water on surface mars around the time that life started on Earth. We are now at the point where we can find out if Mars ever had life associated with it.”

“We’re just now getting to the point where we have the knowledge and the understanding of the universe to answer these types of questions,” he added.

No matter what the answer is, the implications are profound and will help us understand our place in the universe. If Mars had life associate with it and if that life was different than what we have on Earth, that’s huge.

“But, if Mars never had life associated with it, then we are going to think: Wow! Maybe we really are unique and life here on Earth is really precious,” Beegle said. “So, it could be really hard to start life after all, which is also really cool.”

Beegle explained that right now we don’t exactly know what we’re looking for because we only have one example of life. The reason we focus on Mars is we’ve been studying it for decades, we know a lot about it, and we think we know what to look for. Having the ability to bring samples back is an invaluable tool that scientists will use for decades to come.

Sebastien Clarke

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