For 17 years, NASA rovers have laid down tire tracks on Mars. But details the space agency divulged this week about its next Martian exploration vehicle underscored NASA's ultimate goal. Footprints are to follow someday.
The last three rovers -- Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity -- confirmed the Red Planet's ability to support life and searched for signs of past life. The Mars rover of the next decade will hone in on ways to sustain future life there, human life.
"The 2020 rover will help answer questions about the Martian environment that astronauts will face and test technologies they need before landing on, exploring and returning from the Red Planet," said NASA's William Gerstenmaier who works on human missions. This will include experiments that convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen "for human respiration." Oxygen could also be used on Mars in making rocket fuel that would allow astronauts to refill their tanks.
The 2020 rover is the near spitting image of Curiosity and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced plans to launch the new edition not long after Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012. But the 2020 rover has new and improved features. The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, or MOXIE for short, is just one. There are super cameras that will send back 3D panoramic images and spectrometers that will analyze the chemical makeup of minerals with an apparent eye to farming.
"An ability to live off the Martian land would transform future exploration of the planet," NASA said in a statement. The 2020 rover will also create a job for a future mission to complete, once the technology emerges to return to Earth from Mars. It will collect soil samples to be sent back for lab analysis at NASA.