May 14, 2014 – It is six years in the future but NASA is meeting today to begin the mission planning for the next generation Mars rover. Using the same basic design as Curiosity but equipped with an entirely new set of instruments, one of the primary goals will be to collect samples from the Martian surface for return to Earth.
Yet to be determined – a landing site. This is critical for sample collection. Sites where we have evidence of water will be preferred. There are a number of craters and valleys on Mars that are on the short list.
This rover won’t be limited to probing, grinding and analyzing the planet surface. It won’t be limited to looking for evidence of free flowing water in Mars past. Some 58 teams of scientists have submitted instrumentation and experiment proposals to put on board. NASA will begin shortening that list sometime in the summer before making final selections. One potential experiment package may repeat the tests of the original Viking landers in search of the chemistry of life that may still inhabit the planet in microbial form.
And this rover will be designed to collect samples and cache them for a return trip to Earth. The current plan involves sampling and storing 30 cylinders containing rock and soil. A second rocket with a rover would be dispatched from Earth to pick up the samples and then lift off from Mars on a return voyage to Earth. Upon returning it would enter into low-Earth orbit where it would rendezvous with another spacecraft which would then re-enter the atmosphere with samples on board.
The accompanying NASA illustration gives you a good idea of just what will be involved. As you can see this is a complicated robotic mission and hence six years doesn’t seem like an excessive timeline for planning.