NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover will be tasked with conducting a ton of intriguing science on the red planet’s surface, but there’s perhaps nothing more exciting than the prospect of using the little guy to find signs of extraterrestrial life.

Mars is barren wasteland today, but it wasn’t always so: The planet probably teemed with water a long time ago. And that warm, liquid climate means life could have evolved and thrived on the ancient red planet.

At the Goldschmidt conference in Paris, Ken Williford, the director of NASA’s Astrobiogeochemistry Laboratory, explained that the 2020 mission will make heavy use of instruments and techniques designed to detect and measure biosignatures: chemical traces of extant life.

“Previous missions to Mars have used a relatively broad brush,” said Williford, “analyzing average chemistry over roughly the size of a postage stamp — to ‘follow the water’ and seek ancient habitable environments. Mars 2020 takes the next natural step in its direct search for evidence of ancient microbial life, focusing measurements to the microbial scale and producing high-resolution maps over similarly postage stamp-sized analytical areas.”

The instruments Mars 2020 will use to find signs of past (or present) life can study rocks at the resolution of a human hair. Some of the analysis work might have to be done back on Earth, but Mars 2020 will be critical in helping facilitate a sample return of Martian soil back to Earth for study.

“Our objective is to collect a diverse set of samples from our landing site with the best potential to preserve records of the evolution of Mars,” said Williford, “including the presence of life if it was there. We’ll use our onboard instruments to provide the critical field context that future scientists would need to understand the measurements made back on Earth.”

During his talk, Williford also discussed NASA’s decision on where to land the Mars 2020 rover. There are three sites the agency is deliberating on. Each possesses its advantages and disadvantages for the mission.

“We’ve got some hard decisions in front of us,” Williford said. “Because of the possibility of sample return, the selected site could have an outsized impact on the future of Mars science compared to a typical mission. We’ve been working hard to understand the scientific potential of the different sites and engaging the international scientific community for input on this consequential choice. The team is extremely excited about the opportunity to bring a powerful new payload to the surface of Mars and produce some spectacular results wherever we end up.”

No matter the site, the Mars 2020 rover should be in good shape to reveal to us a lot more than we ever anticipated about Mars. Hopefully that includes some more livelier finds.


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