The 2020 Mars rover: A stepping stone to humans on Mars

The 2020 Mars rover: A stepping stone to humans on Mars
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During the summer of 2012, the entire world marveled and watched in awe as NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover survived the treacherous descent through the Martian atmosphere and successfully soft-landed on the Martian surface.

It had been many years since the world had last been so energized by a space exploration mission, particularly one that did not carry astronauts. Part of this excitement was a direct result of the extraordinary technological and scientific achievement that this mission represented. But a significant reason for the enormous public engagement in the Curiosity mission was a highly effective and coordinated educational campaign by NASA and its partners. 

In many of NASA’s previous missions, statements regarding the potential risks and/or success of such missions tended to be guarded. There was a good reason for such hesitancy. Landing a spacecraft on Mars is one of the most difficult engineering challenges ever attempted by humanity. Numerous American and international Mars robotic missions have failed, and to date only the United States has been able to conduct successful missions on the surface of the Red Planet. In 2012, however, NASA decided to change the usual narrative. Instead of “hedging its bets” with respect to Curiosity, NASA embraced the danger and the drama of the mission.

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As the U.S. and its international and industrial partners prepare to return to the Moon and then send humans on to Mars, another NASA rover is scheduled to be launched to Mars, this time in the coming year, presenting NASA with another unique opportunity to inspire the world. The 2020 rover, to be named soon, is based on the same basic design as the Curiosity rover, although the 2020 edition will carry a new and historic payload of experiments. One of its primary objectives will be to determine whether Mars may have sustained life in the past. Determining whether life has ever existed on Mars or anywhere else in the universe is one of the great questions of our age.

The 2020 rover will also carry critical experiments that will help determine whether humans can live sustainably on Mars, paving the way for human missions to Mars by the early to mid-2030s. These experiments include:

  • MOXIE (Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment): MOXIE will be the first In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) experiment ever sent to Mars. It is designed to demonstrate a method for extracting oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, precious oxygen that can not only be used for propellant, but also for breathing. In short, MOXIE will help determine whether humanity will be able to “live off the land” on Mars, using local resources.
  • Mars helicopter: The 2020 rover will carry a small helicopter. If successful, it will be the first aircraft to fly on Mars or on any planet other than Earth. Helicopters/drones may be able to explore locations on Mars that are otherwise inaccessible – such as cliff sides – and cover far more territory than rovers at a resolution that cannot be achieved by current orbital assets. These aerial assets could one day explore terrain and identify science targets in advance of human crews, a technique that has already improved the science capabilities of crews at Mars analog sites on Earth.
  • Sample return: The 2020 rover will also collect and cache samples of soil deposits (also known as regolith) from Mars that will be retrieved during a later mission for a return to Earth. The regolith collected by the 2020 rover will be the first samples from the surface of Mars ever brought back to our home planet for analysis. These samples will not only help address whether there was ever life on Mars, but will also inform our understanding of how to design human habitats, suits and rovers for the Martian environment and of potential human health hazards (such as breathing hazards) in the Martian regolith. 

The 2020 rover also represents a rare political opportunity. In our currently charged political climate, there are many issues that divide our nation. But our nation’s space program and the 2020 rover offer all of us a chance to put aside partisan politics and come together as Americans and as members of the international community, even if only for a little while.

As we approach the launch of the 2020 Mars rover in July 2020, NASA and its partners must once again launch an educational campaign that highlights not only the challenges facing a successful mission, but also how this mission can help advance our ambitious goal of sending humanity into deep space.

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. and author of the new book, “Alcohol in Space.” Rick Zucker is vice president, policy of Explore Mars, Inc.