When NASA’s Mars 2020 rover lands on the Red Planet in February 2021, it will touch down in Jezero Crater, the site of a lake that existed 3.5 billion years ago. The next generation rover will build on the goals of previous robotic explorers by collecting the first samples of Mars, which would be returned to Earth at a later date.
“On the science side, we’re really thinking about new discoveries we can make on the surface and how [that] will inform what we learn when we get the samples back,” said Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for the rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Our job is to find the best samples, collect and store them, and place them on the surface.”
But the new rover will also be on a mission to lay the groundwork for future human exploration.
“We’re very much thinking about how Mars could be inhabited, how humans could come to Mars and make use of the resources that we have there in the Martian environment today,” said Morgan. “We send our robotic scouts first to learn about these other places, hopefully for us to prepare the way for us to go ourselves.”
The Mars 2020 rover, which looks very similar to the Curiosity rover that landed in 2012, is so complex it requires a team of 300 scientists for its operations. They analyze the data returned by the rover, monitor its functions and oversee the suite of instruments on board. If all goes according to plan, one day these tasks may fall to a single human whose footprints would land next to rover tracks on the Martian surface.
The 2020 rover’s work will begin in areas of Jezero Crater, where it will search for signs of ancient life, including mineral deposits and perhaps even microscopic fossils. If 2020 samples these sites, the intriguing soil will be stored in metal tubes, and the data it collects may be able to help scientists know if they’ve found