Move over, Curiosity! NASA plans new Mars rover

NASA's next robotic rover is expected to launch in 2020

NASA is working on the next robotic rover to send to Mars and it's looking for ideas about what tools to equip it with.

The space agency has launched an open competition for scientists to submit proposals for science and exploration instruments to be installed on a new rover, which is expected to be launched in the summer of 2020.

This next rover is tasked with searching for signs of past life and collecting rocks and soil samples that future missions could potentially send back to Earth. It also will try out new technology that future human missions to Mars might be able to use.

According to NASA, the new rover is expected to be based on the basic design for Curiosity, the latest rover to begin working on the Martian surface. A similar design would help save engineering costs.

The 2020 rover's goal is to help meet President Barack Obama's challenge to NASA to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

"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 a written statement. "The science conducted by the rover's instruments also would expand our knowledge of Mars and provide the context needed to make wise decisions about whether to return any collected samples to Earth."

NASA's rover Curiosity has been working on the Martian surface since it landed there in August 2012. This plutonium-powered super rover, which is about the size of a small SUV, has 10 scientific instruments and 17 cameras onboard.

With a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers, Curiosity is tasked with helping scientists figure out if Mars now, or ever has been, able to support life.

Despite finding evidence of ancient water flows and current water in the Martian soil, NASA recently noted that the hunt for life hit a setback when Curiosity could not find traces of methane, which generally is emitted by living organisms, in the Mars atmosphere.

While Curiosity is studying rocks, soil samples and the atmosphere to discover whether Mars could have ever supported life, the next rover will look for actual signs of past life.

The new rover is expected to take measurements of Martian mineralogy and rock chemistry at even a microscopic scale. It also is being designed to study Mars in the hunt for any conditions that could pose hazards to human missions. Another goal will be to help scientists figure out how to collect and manipulate carbon dioxide, which could one day be used to make oxygen and rocket fuel on the Mars surface.

"The Mars 2020 rover will test technologies that are key to one day landing human explorers on the Red Planet," said Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division. "New technologies could allow astronauts to live off the land as they explore the ancient valleys of Mars. The capability to manufacture breathable air, rocket fuel, water and more may forever change how we explore space."

New rover
The next robotic rover heading to Mars will be based on the basic design of the rover Curiosity but will have a new assortment of scientific tools. (Image: NASA)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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