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Celebrating Curiosity and Looking to 2020

Last month marked the first anniversary of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. In last September’s issue, we talked with members of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) science and engineering team about what they hoped to find on Mars, and how the various technologies and instruments on Curiosity were expected to work. This month, we revisit the MSL team and find out if their expectations are on track, what Curiosity has found in a year, and how the dreaded “7 Minutes of Terror” turned into a perfectly executed touchdown on the Red (or so we thought) Planet. (More about that in our feature beginning on page 14.)

As NASA and the world celebrate the first anniversary of landing Curiosity on Mars, plans are already being set for the next major Mars mission. The next rover NASA will send to Mars in 2020 should look for signs of past life, collect samples for possible future return to Earth, and demonstrate technology for future human exploration of the Red Planet, according to a report provided to NASA.

The report was prepared by the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team (SDT), which was appointed by NASA to outline scientific objectives for the mission. The team proposed a mission concept that could accomplish several high-priority planetary science goals and serve as a major step in meeting President Obama’s challenge to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

“The objectives determined by NASA with the input from this team will become the basis later this year for soliciting proposals to provide instruments to be part of the science payload on this exciting step in Mars exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science. NASA will conduct an open competition for the payload and science instruments that will be placed on a rover similar to Curiosity. Using Curiosity’s design will help minimize mission costs and risks, and deliver a rover that can accomplish the mission objectives.

According to the SDT, looking for signs of past life is the next logical step. The new rover would use its instruments for visual, mineralogical, and chemical analysis down to microscopic scale to understand the environment around its landing site and identify biosignatures, or features in the rocks and soil that could have been formed biologically. The SDT proposed that the rover collect and package as many as 31 samples of rock cores and soil that a later mission would bring back for more definitive analysis on Earth.

Samples collected and analyzed by the rover will help inform future human exploration missions to Mars. The rover’s measurements would help designers of a human expedition understand any hazards posed by Martian dust, and demonstrate how to collect carbon dioxide, which could be a resource for making oxygen and rocket fuel. Improved precision landing technology that enhances the scientific value of robotic missions also will be critical for eventual human exploration on the surface.

Watch a video describing NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission goals on Tech Briefs TV at www.techbriefs.com/tv/mars2020.