NASA’s Next Mars Rover Will Make Oxygen

Illustration shows the suite of instruments that will be on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Courtesy: NASA

Living off the land looks like the key to survival on Mars, so NASA’s next red planet rover will help show the way by brewing up its own oxygen, the space agency announced Thursday. The oxygen brewing effort is a prototype of a proposed technology that might someday provide Mars explorers with oxygen, both for breathing and for rocket fuel.

Based on the still-rolling Mars Curiosity rover, the “Mars 2020” wheeled explorer will pack a suite of instruments aimed at inspecting Martian geology, looking for chemical hints of past life and storing rocks for a future sample return mission from the red planet. As its name indicates, the mission aims to explore Mars in 2020.

“This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology,” said NASA’s John Grunsfeld in a statement on the instrument announcement.

Along with equipment for making its own oxygen, the nuclear-powered rover will pack six more instruments, including:

— A “SuperCam” that will remotely detect organic chemistry traces in the Martian landscape. Spectrometers will complement this camera, looking for potential signatures of past microbial life on the planet.

— Subsurface radar sensors that will map the geology under the rover with 0.4 inch (1 centimeter) accuracy. A rock coring drill will collect samples from Mars rocks for future return to Earth.

— Weather station instruments to measure temperature, wind speed, air pressure, humidity, and dust conditions in the Martian atmosphere.

A high-resolution panoramic camera will also take pictures of the Martian landscape, helping to steer the rover. Ideally on the mission, the rover would find rocks bearing biological signatures of past microbial life, collect about 30 samples, and cache them in a canister for later return by a future mission’s rocket to Earth.

The space agency has not announced a landing site for the rover, with about 30 under consideration. Most likely the rover will explore a locale offering exposures of ancient rock dating to the era several billions of years ago when Mars “could have been habitable and a potential abode of life,” said Jim Green, NASA’s planetary science director, at a briefing on the instruments.

“You’re going to have to get lucky to see life today on Mars,” he added.

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