If you were to ask somebody witnessing the US Moon landings in 1969, just as Apollo 11’s Eagle lander was touching down in the Sea of Tranquility, how long it would take man to get to the surface of the next big challenge in our quest for space exploration, Mars, they would undoubtedly not have said “sometime in the 2030s.” Still, this is the consensus now, as president Obama announced it as a goal – hopefully, this is a promise he will keep.
Before 2030, though, a new rover will visit the Red planet in 2020, and plans for its development are already well underway, after the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team, was appointed by NASA in January “to outline scientific objectives for the mission.”
It won’t be too different to Curiosity, the latest rover to be sent to the 4th planet’s surface, and it has been gathering data for almost a year now in a surprisingly trouble-free manner, because one of the aims is to keep costs down.
What will be different, however, will be its payload, instruments and mission, as it would be redundant to have two rovers collecting the same kind of data. According to NASA, “it will 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.”
That means it will focus on trying to discover if the planet at some point in its history was hospitable enough to have harbored life, even of the very basic kind. Frankly, even if they do discover fossilized bacteria, it won’t make the planet any more inviting for air-breathing and water-drinking humans, and aside from its symbolic significance, it won’t get us any closer to terraforming and colonizing other planets. While it may not be an official stated goal, since we are using the Earth as if it were disposable, we at least need a plan B to ensure the species’ survival.
“The Mars 2020 mission concept does not presume that life ever existed on Mars,” says chairman of the Science Definition Team and a professor at the Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, Jack Mustard. “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.”
NASA’s Planetary Science Division director, Jim Green did mention the problem of living on another planet in the future, when he said that the mission “will provide a unique capability to address the major questions of habitability and life in the solar system,” adding that it “represents a major step towards creating high-value sampling and interrogation methods, as part of a broader strategy for sample returns by planetary missions.”
By Andrei Nedelea