NASA scientists said as they unveiled the vehicle that the rover going to Mars next year will not only discover clues to ancient life but will also pave the way for future manned missions.
The rover was built in the large chamber of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, where its driving machine was successfully tested last week. In July 2020 the rover will depart Earth from Cape Canaveral, Florida. With this, it will become the fifth American rover to land on Mars.
“It’s designed to detect the signs of life, so we’re sending various tools with it that will help understand the geographical and chemical contexts on the surface of Mars”, said Matt Wallace, deputy head of the mission. But the devices are 23 cameras, two hearing aids, which will listen to the winds of Mars and have lasers for chemical analysis.
Once collected, the samples will be hermetically sealed in packages by the rover. The packages will then be dispatched on the planet’s surface, where they will lie until a future mission can transport them back to Earth.
“We are wishing to move fairly fast. We’d like to see the next mission launched in 2026, which will get to Mars and pick up the units, put them into a rocket and propel that sample into orbit around Mars,” said Wallace. “The sample would then rendezvous with an orbiter and the orbiter would bring the sample back to the Earth.” Samples should communicate Earth “in a decade or so,” he added.
To maximize its possibility of unearthing traces of ancient life, Mars 2020 will land in a large dried-up delta called Jezero. The site, selected after years of scientific discussion, is a crater that was once a 500-yard-deep lake. It was already attached to a network of rivers that flowed some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago.
The crater measures just under 30 miles across, and experts hope it may have protected ancient organic particles. The Mars 2020 mission also carries hopes for an even more challenging target – a human mission to Mars. “I think of it, really, as the first human precursor mission to Mars,” said Wallace.
Equipment on board “will allow us to make oxygen” that could one day be utilized both for humans to breathe, and to fuel the departure from Mars “for the return trip.” The ambitions come as a new space race hots up, with Beijing increasingly vying to threaten US dominance.