Now that scientists have found evidence that water once flowed on Mars, NASA is planning an ambitious mission for 2020 that will attempt to find evidence that signs of ancient life have been preserved on the planet.
That mission, Mars 2020, will also begin paving the way for a manned presence on Mars, something President Barack Obama suggested in 2010 as a goal to be accomplished within the next 30 years.
"Curiosity has answered the question of whether Mars ever harbored a habitable environment" for life, said John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for Science in Washington. "We still don't have the context of when that was in Mars's history." The Curiosity Rover Mars Science Laboratory landed in August last year and is currently active.
Finding ancient "biosignatures" — features in rocks and soil formed through biological processes — would be another step toward finding life on Mars, if it exists — something "we still think is somewhat unlikely," Jack Mustard, professor of Geological Science at Brown University, said during a NASA News Conference Tuesday.
Mustard chaired the NASA-appointed Mars 2020 Science Definition Team that detailed Mars 2020 exploration plans in a 205-page report discussed during the news conference.
"The dual objectives for Mars 2020 — to provide access to astrobiologically relevant materials and cache samples for possible return to Earth at a later date — have not been attempted before," the report says, adding that the "requirements on the landing site selection process … would differ from those for previous missions."
The mission would employ a varying scale of scientific analysis, from the larger contextual picture to fine imaging, chemistry, and mineralogy — with the measurement of minerals in samples one-half millimeter in size.
Among the many ambitions of Mars 2020, designers would be collecting and caching 31 rock and soil samples — encapsulating and sealing them in a way that would prevent contamination to Earth or to the samples themselves.
However, the cached samples would remain on Mars until they could be retrieved by a future robotic mission capable of making the round trip from Earth to Mars and back, or even by a later manned mission.
While such a mission remains decades away, the human flight component of Mars 2020 includes acquiring a better understanding the Martian atmosphere during a spacecraft's descent, Mustard said.
The Mars 2020 platform, essentially the same vehicle as the Curiosity Rover with new instrumentation, would also attempt to capture carbon dioxide, one of the mission's "resource utilization demonstration experiments" in the Martian environment, Mustard said. The carbon dioxide could be processed into oxygen to support human activity, including the production of rocket fuel.
"That is way exciting, because it says that this would be the way that we [could] cut the tether, so to speak, between the resources on the Earth and operate on another planet," Mustard said.
The report projects a cost of approximately $100 million for the instrumentation package for the 2020 mission that would likely cost a total of more than $1 billion. Spare parts from Curiosity are available, a factor which could help reduce the cost for the 2020 mission.
Mars 2020 is slated for launch that year and will have an expected lifetime of one Martian year, about 690 Earth days.
Now that the report has been issued, the next steps for NASA include analyzing its suggestions and issuing a call for an open competition for instrumentation, Grunsfeld said.
NASA will launch MAVEN, a Mars atmospheric orbiter mission in November.
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