NASA is making grand plans to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth. Today, the space agency announced the goals for the unnamed rover—pictured in an artist's rendering above—that will be sent to the red planet in 2020. This is going to be incredible.
The broadly stated goals for the Mars 2020 mission include continuing our indefatigable search for signs of past life, as well as the newly stated objective of collecting samples to bring back to Earth.
The goals are outlined in a 154 page report (ZIP) prepared by the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team, composed of 19 engineers and scientists. The report basically lists the scientific instruments and payloads necessary on the next ground vehicle we send to Mars. The vehicle itself will apparently be quite similar to the Curiosity, which landed on the surface of Mars last year. Now it's up to contractors to bid on the right to help NASA fulfill our red destiny.
The first part of the 2020 rover mission is to build on previous rover and orbiter findings to try to establish that whether or not Mars actually sustained life. It's become clear in recent years that Mars was almost certainly habitable once. According to the release, the required scientific instruments will be capable of "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."
But testing the soil on Mars isn't good enough for NASA, the team wants NASA to collect and package up as many as 31 rock core and soil samples for a later mission to bring back to Earth. That's a pretty remarkable goal because with very few exceptions, the stuff we shoot into space tends to stay in space.
Beyond merely learning more about what—if anything—ever lived on Mars, NASA hopes the in-depth analysis of the samples can help inform our future efforts to put humans on the red planet. Yes, awesome. [NASA]