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NASA's next Mars rover, scheduled for the year 2020, will explore the Red Planet like no other mission before


By Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist, theweathernetwork.com
@ScottWx_TWN
Thursday, July 31, 2014, 6:11 PM

The latest news out of NASA is sure to be exciting for anyone who's a fan of our efforts to explore the surface of Mars: they have now finalized the suite of instruments and sensors that their next rover will be carrying when it lands on the Red Planet sometime in the year 2020.

The two robot rovers currently rolling around on Mars - venerable investigator Opportunity and science 'powerhouse' Curiosity - have both made some amazing discoveries during their time on the surface of the Red Planet, including evidence that there was once an environment there that was much more hospitable to life as we know it. However, while that was a groundbreaking revelation, neither rover had the capability to actually look for signs of life that may have been there to take advantage of that environment.

NASA's next rover, which will be based on the same design as one-ton, nuclear-powered Curiosity, will feature an upgraded next-gen sensor package that will be the next step up from what Curiosity is capable of, and building upon the knowledge that there could have been life on Mars in the past, it will be able to specifically seek out the signs that any Martian life that did exist would have left behind. It will also help us to figure out some key facts that will help out missions to come, including those the first to have humans set foot on the planet's surface.

"The 2020 rover will help answer questions about the Martian environment that astronauts will face and test technologies they need before landing on, exploring and returning from the Red Planet," William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate said in a press release. "Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry. Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible."

The list of instruments the rover is expected to carry (c/o NASA press release) includes:

- Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom. The instrument also will determine mineralogy of the Martian surface and assist with rover operations.
- SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. The instrument will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith from a distance.
- PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that will also contain an imager with high resolution to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials. PIXL will provide capabilities that permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before.
- SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds.
- MOXIE (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment), an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide.
- MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer), a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape.
- RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration), a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface.

"Today we take another important step on our journey to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in the statement. "While getting to and landing on Mars is hard, Curiosity was an iconic example of how our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way for humans to pioneer Mars and beyond. Mars exploration will be this generation’s legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans' journey to the Red Planet."


CHECK BACK SOON!: This is unofficial 'Mars Week' here on www.theweathernetwork.com, with stories each day about the Red Planet and our efforts to explore it, all leading up to celebrating the 2nd Earth anniversary of Curiosity's 'Seven Minutes of Terror' landing.


Some added details about this rover come via the Twitter feed of planetary scientist, and senior editor for The Planetary Society, Emily Lackdawalla:

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