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NASA's 2020 rover mission to look for past life on Mars news
10 July 2013

The Mars rover mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will send in 2020 would look for signs of past life and demonstrate technology for future human exploration of the Red Planet, the US space agency said.

The rover will collect samples before a possible future return to Earth, NASA said.

The current Curiosity rover mission as also other previous Spirit and Opportunity rovers, along with several orbiters have given enough data to prove that life and water once existed in Mars.

The Curiosity rover mission has found definitive signs that water once flowed in a crater and rock samples show signs of clay minerals.

"We really needed to go back to the surface, and go to the next stage. ... Did Mars ever have life?" NASA's associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld quoted from a report prepared by NASA's Mars 2020 Science Definition Team.

The 2020 mission will build upon the accomplishments of Curiosity and other Mars missions, the Science Definition Team said, adding that looking for signs of past life is the next logical step.

"Crafting the science and exploration goals is a crucial milestone in preparing for our next major Mars mission," said Grunsfeld. "The objectives determined by NASA with the input from this team will become the basis later this year for soliciting proposals to provide instruments to be part of the science payload on this exciting step in Mars exploration."

NASA will conduct an open competition for the payload and science instruments. They will be placed on a rover similar to Curiosity, which landed on Mars almost a year ago.

Curiosity recently confirmed that past environmental conditions on Mars could have supported living microbes. According to the Science Definition Team, looking for signs of past life is the next logical step.

''Using Curiosity's design will help minimise mission costs and risks and deliver a rover that can accomplish the mission objectives.''

The 2020 Mars rover would use its instruments for 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.

"The Mars 2020 mission concept does not presume that life ever existed on Mars," said Jack Mustard, chairman of the Science Definition Team and a professor at the Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in the US.

"However, given the recent Curiosity findings, past Martian life seems possible, and we should begin the difficult endeavor of seeking the signs of life. No matter what we learn, we would make significant progress in understanding the circumstances of early life existing on Earth and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life."

The 2020 rover is expected to collect and package as many as 31 samples of rock cores and soil for a later mission to bring back for more definitive analysis in laboratories on Earth.

The rover would also make a learned decision on whether it would be wise to return the samples to Earth.

"The Mars 2020 mission will provide a unique capability to address the major questions of habitability and life in the solar system," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "This mission represents a major step towards creating high-value sampling and interrogation methods, as part of a broader strategy for sample returns by planetary missions."

Samples collected and analysed by the rover will help inform future human exploration missions to Mars.

The 2020 rover mission to Mars is considered essential to meeting President Barack Obama's challenge to send a manned mission to the planet in the 2030s.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages NASA's Mars exploration programme.





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NASA's 2020 rover mission to look for past life on Mars