Nuclear-powered Mars rover to search for old life, prepare for human life
The Mars 2020 rover is set to launch in July of the same year, setting the stage for years and years of science on the Red Planet.
- NASA recently unveiled the final details of the Mars 2020 rover mission.
- As yet unnamed, the Mars 2020 rover will launch in July of that same year. It's primary mission will be to search the planet for signs of microbial life.
- However, the rover also contains instrumentation that will enable it to prepare for future human life, including a device to produce oxygen from Mars' CO2 atmosphere.
Once every 26 months or so, Earth's and Mars' elliptical, off-kilter orbits align in just the right way to bring the two planets together as closely as possible, with a mere 35.8 million miles to separate them (or 57.6 million kilometers).
That's why Mars 2020, the successor to the Curiosity Rover, is set to launch in July of 2020, when Mars is at its closest with Earth. Since its mission was first announced in 2012, the Mars 2020 rover has been designed and developed to seek out signs of ancient microbial life and even prepare Mars' inhospitable surface for future manned missions.
What will the Mars 2020 rover look like?
An engineer works on the solar-powered drone that will be affixed to the Mars 2020 rover.
For the most part, the as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover is based on the design of the Curiosity rover. Curiosity's original mission was only meant to last for two years, and yet the rover has been functioning and conducting science for more than seven years now. Re-using this robust design helps to cut down costs and risks for the Mars 2020 rover.
"It's designed to seek the signs of life, so we're carrying a number of different instruments that will help us understand the geological and chemical context on the surface of Mars," deputy mission leader Matt Wallace told AFP.
Mars 2020 will carry 10 different instruments, including 23 cameras, microphones to listen to the rover's performance and identify any possible mechanical issues, an X-ray spectrometer, radar, a solar-powered drone, and more.
Like Curiosity, these instruments will be powered by a miniature nuclear reactor in the Mars 2020 rover, but the new rover will have more durable wheels (you may remember occasional news articles bemoaning holes and dents in Curiosity's wheels). Mars 2020 will also include an improved landing system, dubbed Terrain-Relative Navigation (TRN). This system will help the rover detect and avoid hazardous terrain during its descent and enable it to land within 130-foot area compared to Curiosity's 53.4-mile landing area.
Searching for ancient life
This map shows Jezero crater, where Mars 2020 will touch down, as well as the landing sites of all other spacecraft to visit Mars.
This ability to precisely choose a landing spot is critical to Mars 2020's primary goal, which is to search for signs of ancient microbial life. When searching for microfossils on a barren planet whose surface is exposed to cosmic rays and the elements, location is key. That's why Mars 2020 will touch down in the Jezero crater, an 820-foot crater that used to be a lake 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago.
Because a river delta used to flow through the ancient lake, a significant amount of sediment has collected within the crater. Specifically, NASA researchers hope to find hydrated silica, a crystalline mineral that has preserved signs of life on Earth for billions of years, hopefully having done the same on Mars.
Using a drill to gather cored samples of this material, Mars 2020 will then set aside caches on the surface of Mars. Future missions will collect these caches and deliver them back to Earth, where researchers will be able to analyze the samples in lab equipment too bulky to transport to the Red Planet.
"We are hoping to move fairly quickly. We'd like to see the next mission launched in 2026, which will get to Mars and pick up the samples, 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."
Preparing for new life
The other major thrust of Mars 2020's mission will be to pave the way for future human missions and study Mars' potential for habitability. The entry, descent, and landing of the rover will be carefully studied to improve future touchdowns, and the rover's many sensors will work toward understanding the environmental conditions that astronauts will face when living and working on Mars.
Excitingly, the rover will also include a device called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment). This experimental technology will suck in CO2 — which composes 96 percent of the Martian atmosphere — remove dust and other contaminants, and convert the CO2 into a small amount of oxygen.
The MOXIE device on Mars 2020 will only output about 22 grams of oxygen per hour, but if it succeeds, NASA researchers hope to land a 100-times larger MOXIE device on Mars capable of producing two kilograms of oxygen per hour.
This oxygen could be stored in tanks to be used as life support for future astronauts and for fuel for either autonomous or manned return flights to Earth.
Over the next few years, we can look forward to hearing about Mars 2020's experiments, hopefully learning whether or not life came into existence twice in the same solar system. As those years stretch into decades, the success of Mars 2020 will set up future manned missions to Mars, possibly as soon as the 2030s.
- Bill Nye: How NASA Can Get Humans to Mars by 2033 - Big Think ›
- Mars 2020 will hunt for 'microfossils', signs of ancient alien life - Big ... ›
- These 7 countries and companies are going to Mars in the 2020s - Big Think ›
- These countries and companies are going to Mars in the 2020s - Big Think ›
Young people could even end up less anxiety-ridden, thanks to newfound confidence
- The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
- Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
- Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?
Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways.
The future of learning will be different, and now is the time to lay the groundwork.
- The coronavirus pandemic has left many at an interesting crossroads in terms of mapping out the future of their respective fields and industries. For schools, that may mean a total shift not only in how educators teach, but what they teach.
- One important strategy moving forward, thought leader Caroline Hill says, is to push back against the idea that getting ahead is more important than getting along. "The opportunity that education has in this moment to really push students and think about what is the right way to live, how do we do it and how do we do it in a way that doesn't hurt or rob the dignity of other people?"
- Hill also argues that now is the time for bigger swings and for removing the barriers that limit education. The online space is boundary free and provides educators with new opportunities to connect with students around the world.
Remaining silent is being complicit.
- Protests around the world are demanding an end to police discrimination and violence against black citizens in America.
- Author and activist Dax-Devlon Ross offers advice on how white people can help during this moment.
- Ross's suggestions include thinking and voting locally, supporting black-owned businesses, and practicing self-reflection.
On Friday, the moon will pass through the Earth's outer shadow, known as the penumbra.