Nasa announced today that its next Mars rover will have advanced
cameras, more sophisticated lasers, and the ability to see
underground as it explores the Red Planet starting in 2020.
The mission, currently being called the Mars 2020 rover (until
Nasa can give
it a better name), is a twin of the Curiosity rover currently
on Mars. This duplication allows Nasa to save money because they
already had a
spare machine sitting around, but Mars 2020 won’t just be
carrying repeats of Curiosity’s state-of-the-art
gadgets. Instead, the probe will be building on the
scientific discoveries from Curiosity, preparing to return
samples of Mars to Earth, and even paving the way for future human
exploration. Here’s a breakdown of all the rover’s new gear.
First up is the new rover’s souped-up camera system called
Mastcam-Z, a multispectral binocular imager. We’re all used to the incredible photos that Curiosity sends back but this new
camera will be able to shoot pictures in multiple wavelengths,
allowing scientists to see things that would otherwise be invisible
to our eyes. It will also be able to zoom, an ability that
cameras sadly lack, which will make it possible for the rover
to rapidly map out its surroundings, build terrain models, and plot
out its path on Mars.
Just like Curiosity, Mars 2020 will be carrying a laser that it
will use to
shoot unsuspecting rocks. But Nasa is promising that the new
rover’s laser will be even better than Curiosity’s. Called
SuperCam, the instrument will incinerate small bits of rocks on the
ground and then analyse the resulting vapour to determine their
composition. Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument does a similar job, but
Supercam will have the ability to examine the smoke in multiple
wavelengths, including visible and infrared (thus the rainbow
nickname), that will give it a better understanding of the types of
minerals around it. This will help the science team decide whether
or not certain rocks are better to investigate further, and which
ones to take samples from.
As part of Nasa’s efforts to bring humans to Mars, the new rover
has Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), a tool that can extract
carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and break it apart to produce
pure oxygen. This will be the first test of what’s known as in situ
resource utilisation — essentially using the stuff around you to
live off the land — and could help astronauts produce breathable
gases or rocket fuel on a future mission.
Mars 2020 will have a weather station called Mars Environmental
Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) that will record the local
temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind speed. This instrument
will also study dust in the atmosphere, analyzing its size and
shape, another important part of one day sending humans, who will
have to find a way to avoid getting their gear contaminated with
this potentially lethal stuff.
The new rover will have the awesome ability to see underground on
Mars, using its ground-penetrating radar. Known as Radar Imager for
Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), this instrument will scan up
to a third of a mile beneath the surface as the rover travels
around. Mars 2020 will be able to resolve objects as small as an
inch or two in size, giving scientists a glimpse of what goes on
deep below their rover’s wheels.
Nasa will be sending its new rover with an X-ray fluorescence
spectrometer called the Planetary Instrument for X-ray
Lithochemistry (PIXL) that can map out each element in a
particular rock. This will allow geologists to look figure out what
kind of minerals are in a rock sample. Because microbes need
certain materials to thrive, these minerals could indicate places
where we are more likely to find evidence of past life.
Organic molecule hunter
Finally, Mars 2020 will be carrying an instrument
called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman &
Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), which will use
an ultraviolet laser to scan for organic molecules. Also able to
give a very detailed look at the mineralogy of rocks, SHERLOC will
complement the X-ray abilities of PIXL. The science team is
particularly interested in making sure that its instrument’s
capabilities have some overlap, so that they can check and
double-check their work.
Sample return prep
Though not a particular instrument, the new rover will be using all
its sophisticated apparatuses to figure out what are the best rock
samples for scientists back on Earth to study in more detail. It
will use a drill to place around 30 pencil-sized rock cylinders
inside of sealed canisters. One day, a future mission could pick up
these jars and return them to our planet, fulfilling a dream that
the planetary science community has long hoped for and giving them
the chance to analyse recent pieces of Mars up close.
This article originally appeared on Wired.com