Mars’ 2020 Rover, Goals and Instruments Announced by NASA

The Mars 2020 Rover, artists drawing of where each of the seven instruments will be located.  Image Credit: NASA

The Mars 2020 Rover, artists drawing of where each of the seven instruments will be located.
Image Credit: NASA

A panel of scientists assembled today at NASA headquarters to announce, via NASA Television, the seven carefully selected instruments that are to be included on the 2020 Rover to Mars. The panel included:

  • John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate
  • Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Directorate
  • Michael Meyer, lead scientist, Mars Exploration Program
  • Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist

There are four main goals for the next Martian endeavor. The devices, which will accompany the rover, have been specifically selected to aid in reaching the mission objectives. These include: making the necessary progress to eventually bring humans to the red planet, identifying and studying a specific region of the planet in detail, to look for biosignatures that indicate past or present life, and to core and cache rock sample for future delivery back to Earth.

As of now NASA is working with over fifty institutions world-wide, planning and implementing the technology needed for our next visit to Mars. Present, NASA has only defined the suite of instruments and objectives for the 2020 Rover. Within the next year (by May 2015) they hope to have the regulations and technicalities hammered out.

Even though the 2020 Rover will be about the same size as Curiosity, scientists are excited about its souped-up technologies. The landing mass of the rover will be less than one metric ton with about 40 kilograms of scientific instruments (as compared to Curiosity’s 74 kilograms worth of gadgets).

NASA headquarters have announced that the landing mechanism will be the same in 2020 as it was for Curiosity. A Sky Crane will be used for safe landing.

Here now are a list of the instruments and how each is will aid in achieving the stated goals set forth by NASA:

MASTCAM-Z will have the most advanced zooming capabilities yet on Mars. It will contain twelve filters that will be able to use binocular vision giving it the ability for multispectral imaging. It will be equipped for rapid terrain modeling, allowing the rover to choose a safe landing spot from further distances than Curiosity could. It will also allow for more precise panoramic and close up photography, making the task easier for selecting a region for detailed study.

SuperCam has been designed to be the next step in laser induced mass spectroscopy. It will be able to identify elements and minerals within rocks with a simple shot of a laser (532 nm wavelength). It will be this device that will allow remote sensing and will hopefully be able to detect organic materials in the search for life on Mars.

MOXIE (The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment) is perhaps the most exciting instrument to be included. It is the first step in taking the carbon dioxide abundant in Mars’ atmosphere, breaking it apart, and creating pure oxygen. This is an absolutely necessary technology to master if we ever hope to get humans on Mars. The oxygen could be used to create an artificial atmosphere capable for extended human habitation, as well as to make rocket fuel for voyages between planets.

MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) will provide a detailed description of Mars’ weather. It will be able to measure temperature, humidity and wind speed, atmospheric pressure, and dust analysis. It will be designed to help MOXIE.

RIMFAX (The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration) will provide ground-penetrating radar down to half a kilometer beneath the surface. This will allow for detailed imaging of geological features that scientists may or may not wish to dig down to examine, it will also be useful for identifying underground water sources (if there are any).

PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) is one of two arm-mounted instruments designed to provide fine scaled mineralogical study. It will be used in the search for microbial life. Using X-rays it will be able to deliver the most detailed chemical analysis of Martian rocks to date.

SherLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) is the second of the two arm-mounted devices. Like its counterpart its job is to detect mineral composition. It will use ultra violet lasers to probe rocks for organic life.

Michael Meyer stated in the press conference that each of the instruments involved have been wisely selected to work with each other. Each will offer advancements on technologies already implanted on Curiosity, or they are new tools never yet used on Mars.

The 2020 Rover is the next big leap in understanding Mars. It aims at increasing our knowledge of the two most fundamental human questions; can humans leave Earth and live on another planet, and are we the only form of life within the universe? Great discoveries are sure to come!


Origins of Mars’ Mysterious Gullies Solved

These two images, taken four years apart, show the martian gully evolving over time. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

These two images, taken four years apart, show the martian gully evolving over time. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

It was nearly 15 years ago when scientists first spotted gullies on Mars. Since then they’ve had the opportunity to make continual observations of these structures using the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter’s high tech equipment. The initial findings led to many questions; primarily, could these gullies be formed by flows of liquid water?

If that were the case, the implications would be truly sensational. Thus far, we have only detected frozen waterwater vapor and a few characteristics that indicate Mars was once a wet world. Discovering liquid water could be game changer for many reasons, but above all, it would put Mars as the solid front runner in the search for  life in the solar system. Needless to say,  a lot of people have their fingers crossed.


To figure out whether or not it was water sculpting the gullies, scientists turned to MRO once again. On board the spacecraft resides the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, otherwise known as HiRISE. The camera has played an important role in distinguishing significant features of Mars’ terrain in resoundingly high definition.

Serina Diniega of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says, “This [technology] allows us to make repeated observation[s] and to examine surface changes over time”. She goes on to include, “Much of the information we have about gully formation, and other active processes, come from the longevity of MRO and other orbiters”(NASA).

Since arriving on the red planet, HiRISE has focused its attention on 356 sites that contain gullies, which on Earth, are trenches carved by the movement of water down a slope. Astoundingly, thirty-eight of the sites indicate change over time. This was a surprising discovery, given that earlier theories had proposed that the odd streaks on Mars’ surface formed thousands of years ago while it was still a vibrant world. In actuality, they observed the gullies transforming, sometimes dramatically, before their eyes. Some showed evidence of additional debris build up at the base of the trenches, others spawned new branches. It was now clear that gullies are still quite active on Mars.

Side-by-side comparisons of photos taken of the same location helped researchers verify when the gully seemed to be flowing most prominently. As it turned out, the activity “coincided with seasonal carbon dioxide frost and temperatures that would not have allowed for liquid water” stated NASA’s press release (announced on July 10th, 2014).

This set of images was taken by HiRISE in 2010 and 2013. A new channel is shown forming on the martian slope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

This set of images was taken by HiRISE in 2010 and 2013. A new channel is shown forming on the martian slope. Click to enlarge. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)


So, if it isn’t liquid water, what’s creating martian trenches? The next obvious contender is frozen carbon dioxide, otherwise knows as dry ice (it comprises approximately 95% of Mars’ atmosphere). We know that carbon dioxide (Co2) freezes at -78.5 ºC (-109.3 ºF) at sea level (one atmospheric pressure); therefore, dry ice is not found naturally on Earth, our surface temperature and atmospheric pressure just aren’t conducive to the freezing of Co2. Conversely, on Mars, the temperatures can drop down to -153 °C (-225 ºF) at the poles during winter. In comparison, during the summer, temperatures at the equator can warm up to 20 °C (70 °F).

Scientists now believe the trenches have been carved into Mars’ surface by seasonal dry ice formations. The sublimation, or phase transfer, of carbon dioxide gas into a solid could create enough lubrication to help move along the flow of the frozen material. As the atmosphere freezes more gas, its mass becomes greater, thus gravity might also aid downward flow.

While this research — recently published online in the journal ICARUS — suggests that liquid water isn’t the catalyst, dry ice is still a pretty exciting consolation. Lead author Colin Dundas (from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center) remains optimistic, saying, “I like that Mars can still surprise us…Martian gullies are fascinating features that allow us to investigate a process we just don’t see on Earth”.


This article was originally published by FQTQ, July 15, 2014. 

Extremophiles: Life on Mars and What Causes Magenta Lakes

In terms of microbes, there’re none more remarkable than the extremophiles. These organisms may be the best contestants for finding life on Mars, and they are responsible for the most alluring pink lakes found here on Earth. Whether they inhabit environments with life-threatening temperatures or exist in acidic, salty waters, various kinds of these resourceful critters have existed for eons on our planet (and maybe on other worlds).

There are many types of extremophiles on Earth. Take, for example, halophiles. These are the salt lovers of extreme microbes. They thrive in locations that are nearly completely saturated with salt; in fact, they can live anywhere that the concentration is 5x more than that of the ocean. Halophiles are a type of archaea. The branch of life known as Archaea includes only those varieties of microbes that can exist in the most volatile environments.

Halophiles also go by the name Halobacterium; yet, genetically speaking, they are separate from bacteria. This can be slightly confusing, given their name; however, like bacteria, halophiles are single-celled and among the oldest living organisms on Earth. In fact, the word “archaea” is Greek, meaning “ancient.”


Lake Hillier via Ralph Roberts

Lake Hillier is one of the most uniquely colored lakes on Earth. It is located on Middle Island in Western Australia. Its bright pink hue isn’t due to clever photographic angling; in fact, if you were to remove a sample of the liquid from the lake, it would remain the same color. The water is believed to be blushing because it is chock full of Halobacterium. The Pepto-Bismol color is caused by the carotenoids producing pigments within the cellular membrane.

Scientists believe that the coloring produced by these microbes is beneficial for multiple reasons. Not only does it help protect against the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, it may also be useful in converting light into chemical energy, similar to the light-harvesting reactions of chlorophyll in green plants.

It is thought to be completely safe to swim in. Unfortunately, Lake Hillier is extremely remote and usually only seen by tourists as they fly past it. But if you still can’t get the dream of swimming in bubblegum lakes out of your head, you may have better luck at one of these other pink lakes.


n images taken of Newton Crater by the Mars Reconnisence Orbiter in 2011 show what may be salt water flowing on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

n images taken of Newton Crater by the Mars Reconnisence Orbiter in 2011 show what may be salt water flowing on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

In 2011, NASA released images of what may be the best evidence of salt water flowing on Mars. For this reason, the longevity of halophilic strains is of considerable interest to astronomers seeking to find life in outer-space. Since microorganisms were the first creatures to exist on Earth, they seem a good place to start in the search for life outside the boundaries of our planet.

Even if these mysterious streaks on Mars turn out not to be caused by liquid salt flows, the possibility still exists that halophiles may be found on the red planet. Chemical analysis of Mars’ SNC meteorites (shergottite, nakhlite, and chassigny) indicates the presence of halite rock salt. Halophiles could potentially be found somewhere on Mars where salt formations occur.

In 2009, Jong Soo Park of Dalhousie University examined ancient rock salt from varying locations and found that the oldest known DNA on Earth belongs to a form of halophilic bacterium that existed 419 million years ago. We know that these organisms can withstand extreme conditions, and they can do so for unimaginable lengths of time; but will they prove to be fruitful in finding life on other planets? Only further observations and analysis will tell.



Additional References:

Extremophiles: Archaea and Bacteria“. Map of Life. May 26, 2014

Extremely halophilic archaea and the issue of long-term microbial survival”.

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health


Secluded Lake Hillier is a Bubble Gum Pink” Lake Scientist. January 23, 2014

This article originally appeared at From Quarks to Quasars.