Here's What NASA's Next Generation Mars Rover Will Do

Targeted for a 2020 launch, NASA's next Mars rover may look like Curiosity's twin, but it will have a very different suite of instruments aboard. Continue reading →

NASA's next Mars rover may look a lot like Curiosity; a six-wheeled Mini Cooper-sized robot designed to assess if the planet most like Earth in the solar system ever had habitats suitable for life. (It does!)

But the still unnamed follow-on vehicle, targeted for launch in 2020, will have a very different suite of instruments aboard.

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From 58 proposals, NASA on Thursday selected seven science instruments that will be used to delve deeper into questions about the existence of life beyond Earth.

Definitive answers may come only after carefully selected samples are back in Earth laboratories, so one of the key goals of the Mars 2020 rover mission is to identify, collect and cache samples for eventual analysis on Earth.

To that effort, the new rover will have dual multispectral zoom cameras, called Mastcam-Z, designed to provide broadband red/green/blue color imaging as well as narrow-band visible to short-wave near-infrared sensitivity.

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The cameras' zoom feature will be capable of resolving features as small as about 1 millimeter in size in the near field and about 3- to 4 centimeters from 100 meters away. Scientists will use the cameras to navigate the rover, collect samples and study rocks and soil.

In addition to still images, the cameras can shoot video, which will enable them to capture dynamic phenomena such as swirling dust devils, drifting Martian clouds, passing comets and other astronomical events.

Complementing Mastcam-Z is SuperCam, which will be able to take pictures and determine the chemical composition and mineralogy of target rocks and regolith - including the presence of organic compounds from a distance. For closer inspections, scientists can tap two instruments flying to Mars for the first time. They are:

The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager that can reveal fine-scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials, and The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), another spectrometer which uses a ultraviolet laser for fine-scale mineralogy and to detect organic compounds.

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Another instrument is less concerned about past life on Mars than life to come, namely humans. Toward that goal, NASA's human space exploration program is backing a technology demonstration to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars' atmosphere. The experiment is called MOXIE, an acronym for Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment.

Rounding out the Mars 2020 payload are two instruments to assess the Martian environment and to study what is beneath its surface.

The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) is a set of sensors to measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure and relative humidity, as well as the size and shape of dust. The Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX) is a ground-penetrating radar that can provide centimeter-scale resolution of the planet's interior.

In all, NASA plans to spend about $130 million to develop the seven instruments.

Like Curiosity's landing method in 2012, the Mars 2020 rover will use a similar "skycrane" to be lowered onto the Red Planet's surface.

NASA's rover Curiosity has begun drilling operations for the third time on Mars. Currently located at a geologically interesting location nicknamed "The Kimberley," the one-ton rover also took the opportunity to photograph itself and the surrounding landscape in some stunning Martian "selfies." In this scene, Curiosity appears to be leaning its "head" -- a suite of instruments including the Chemcam (the laser "eye") and Mastcam cameras -- to the side, capturing the 5 kilometer-high Aeolis Mons (a.k.a. "Mount Sharp") on the horizon. The self portrait has been stitched together

by Discovery News' Jason Major

from a series of raw photographs (taken on sol 613, April 28, of the mission) by Curiosity's robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument.

In this scene, Curiosity appears to be concentrating hard on a rock of interest -- dubbed "Windjana" by mission scientists after a gorge in Western Australia -- that it has cleaned with its robotic arm-mounted Dust Abrasion Tool. A grey circular patch can be seen on the otherwise rusty rock's surface where the tool has scrubbed away any surface dust ready for analysis and drilling. This beautiful selfie was created

by JPL's Doug Ellison

, after assembling a collection of photos from the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on sol 613 (April 28) of the mission. Curiosity's selfies not only produce some breathtaking scenes, they are also used by mission engineers to keep tabs on the condition of the rover the more time it is exposed to the harsh Martian environment.

Curiosity used its Mastcam to photograph this closeup of its Rock Abrasion Tool. The instrument spins the wire-bristle brush over rock surfaces to remove layers of dust that has accumulated.

After brushing, a grey circle of rock beneath the ruddy Mars dust is exposed for further analysis. In this photo by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), the texture of Mars dust is obvious and fine cracks or seams in "Windjana" can be seen. "In the brushed spot, we can see that the rock is fine-grained, its true color is much grayer than the surface dust, and some portions of the rock are harder than others, creating the interesting bumpy textures,"

said Melissa Rice

, Curiosity science team member, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "All of these traits reinforce our interest in drilling here in order understand the chemistry of the fluids that bound these grains together to form the rock."

On April 29, Curiosity used its drill to bore a 2 centimeter hole into Windjana. This is only the third rock Curiosity has drilled into since landing on the red planet on Aug. 5, 2012. The grey color obviously extends deeper into the rock than just on its surface, and the powder created can provide a pristine rock sample for further analysis, helping mission scientists understand how the rock formed and under what environmental conditions.

The first two drilled rocks were located in Yellowknife Bay, approximately 4 kilometers from The Kimberley. Those rocks were determined to be mudstone slabs formed through water action and sediment, providing compelling evidence that the interior of Gale Crater used to play host to a lakebed and may have provided a habitable environment for ancient microbial life. This new drilling operation will provide more clues as to how rock formed in the region, revealing more tantalizing clues as to the past habitability of the red planet.