NASA is ready to wrap up the final design and begin building the next Mars rover, which is set to search, for the first time, for signs of past life on the planet.
The space agency announced Friday that plans are moving ahead for the robotic rover to launch in the summer of 2020 and land on Mars in February 2021.
The new rover also is designed to test the planet for usable resources, such as oxygen, that will be needed for future missions to Mars that will include humans.
The Mars Curiosity rover, which has been working on the Red Planet since August 2012, has been searching for evidence that the planet could have ever sustained life – even in microbial form.
The new rover will take the next step, looking for evidence of life.
"The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth," said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. "This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA's Journey to Mars – to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet."
The new vehicle, unofficially dubbed the Mars 2020 rover, is expected to explore a region of the planet where NASA scientists expect that the ancient environment had been favorable to support microbial life.
The rover will drill into rocks, collect samples and ready them for a return trip to Earth as part of a future Mars mission.
In an attempt to save money on the project, NASA plans to base the rover's design on that of its predecessor, Curiosity.
However, the Mars 2020 rover will have a new array of scientific instruments.
For example, the rover is designed to carry two instruments on its robotic arm: one to search for signs of past life and one to determine where it should collect soil and rock samples. Other onboard instruments will be able to analyze the chemical, mineral, physical and organic characteristics of the samples.
The rover also will have scientific instruments mounted on its mast to provide high-resolution imaging, as well as three different types of spectroscopy to characterize rocks and soil from a distance. That information will help scientists determine which areas the robotic rover should investigate more closely.
A separate suite of sensors on the rover's mast and deck will be used to monitor weather conditions, while ground-penetrating radar will assess sub-surface geologic structure, NASA said.
The Mars 2020 rover will have a rack of tubes for holding soil and rock samples. According to NASA, 30 of those sample tubes will be left at specific locations where they can be picked up during future "retrieval missions" and sent back to Earth.
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