NASA’s ‘2020’ Mission to the Red Planet

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NASA’s Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ was the largest rover ever sent to the red planet. Thanks to the exploration and findings of ‘Curiosity’, scientists have established that on at least one location on the red planet hosted an environment that would habitable or hospitable to life. The findings have made National Aeronautics and Space Administration to trace for evidence of life on Mars, especially for ancient Microbial life.

Known as Mars 2020, the new rover mission will lay foundation for the ultimate arrival of extant life. Australian Geologist Dr. Abigail Allwood was announced as the principal investigator for the NASA 2020 mission. She has become the first woman and Australian to lead a NASA team. ‘It’s no longer an old boys club’, joyously proclaimed Abigail after knowing about NASA’s decision.

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Dr. Abigail Allwood is now working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California, where she has designed new technology that is capable of analyzing rock at microscopic grain levels. These particular technologies will the used in the new mars rover mission to determine whether the red planet once hosted life. Abigail was a 2001 graduate of the Queensland University of Technology. In 2002, she started studying the rocky reefs at microscopic levels, which resulted in providing evidence that the earliest life on earth existed some 3.43 billion years ago. In 2006, she arrived at NASA’s JPL just after finishing her PhD at Macquerie University, Sydney. In the same year she was named as one of the world’s top 10 scientific minds.

NASA officials also said that they have agreed to support a set of seven instruments for the mission, which might nearly cost $1.9 billion. Apart from the tools to analyze rocks, the 2020 rover will carry hardware designed to draw oxygen from the red planet’s atmosphere, which is dominated by carbon dioxide. Dr. Allwood will be in charge of PIXL — Planetary Instrument X-ray Lithochemistry. This instrument will be mounted at the end of the robotic arm of rover. PIXL will use X-rays to examine the chemistry of rock samples, in order to seek evidence for past life on Mars.

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It is said that the PIXL will be fast in analyzing its rock or soil target. Its intended use is between few seconds and 2 minutes, while the instrument’s X-ray focuses on a spot, working in a grid pattern to produce a detailed map of the elements within a rock target. PIXL also incorporates a high-resolution camera. The camera is to analyze the detailed elemental composition of rock in conjunction with the viewable characteristics of the target area.

As of now, the science team is looking over 30 potential landing sites on the red planet, out of which, 10 are intriguing enough for additional scrutiny. The Mars 2020 mission may help the scientists to understand the hazards posed by red planet’s dust and could eventually lead to demonstrate a technology that might lead to process carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce oxygen. The rover mission will also be step to indicate the future human explorers on how to utilize the natural resources available on red planet. And, finally finding signs of ancient life on Mars would be great revelation to know when life gained foothold on our galaxy.

 

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