NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will pave the way for manned missions to Mars

The Martian may have made it look easy(ish), but survival on Mars will be a massive challenge for humanity. Due to its very thin atmosphere, heat moves quickly off the surface of the planet meaning high variations in surface temperature. And that’s not to mention the lack of breathable oxygen or water on the surface, as well as threats like high levels of radiation and severe dust storms.

But NASA is charging ahead with plans to eventually put humans on Mars all the same, and for that, they need to develop a whole spectrum of new technologies.

mars 2020 manned missions pia23302 hires
This artist’s concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that could make Mars safer and easier to explore for humans. NASA

The plan is for the 2024 mission to the moon to act as a stepping stone for human exploration of Mars. And now NASA has revealed how aspects of the upcoming Mars 2020 mission will shape the technology required for human missions.

The first challenge is the touchdown on the surface, as landing heavier objects like a crewed ship full of supplies is much more difficult than landing a smaller rover. With Mars 2020, NASA is testing the Mars Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) sensors that can sense the temperature inside the craft as it approaches landing, which is important for the design of future heat shields. It will also be testing a new Terrain Relative Navigation guidance system which uses a camera to image the landing zone and compare these images to pre-chosen coordinates. This should help ensure landings are more accurate.

The next issue is the supply of essential oxygen and water. For oxygen, a device called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) has been developed which converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. The Martian atmosphere is mostly made up of carbon dioxide, so if this device can work on a large scale it could be the solution to generating breathable air for human explorers. In terms of water, scientists believe that they may be liquid water on Mars below the surface as well as underground ice deposits. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) tool could be used to locate this ice which could be used as drinking water.

Finally, there are the issues of spacesuits and shelter. To test potential spacesuit materials, five samples of fabric are being sent along with the rover’s Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument. These samples will be tested to see how they stand up to the ultraviolet radiation on the planet. And to gather data on what kind of shelter will be required, the rover will have a suite of sensors called the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) to gather information on weather conditions.

The Mars 2020 mission launches next year, so soon we’ll know a lot more about how humans may be able to survive on the inhospitable red planet.

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