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NASA's Mars 2020 rover to include experiment to make oxygen on the red planet

NASA's Mars 2020
NASA's Mars 2020NASA (public domain)

NASA announced on Thursday the suite of instruments that would fly on board the Mars 2020 rover. Superficially Mars 2020 has the same look and size as Mars Curiosity, a large, car sized rover currently exploring the Martian landscape. But the new rover will contain a number of new instruments, including an experiment to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. The instruments selected came from a variety of institutions in the United States, as well as France, Norway and Spain.

The oxygen experiment is called the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE). It will test a concept scientists call In Situ Resource Utilization of ISRU. The idea is that the fewer consumables that a future human mission to Mars has to carry across interplanetary distances, the better. A device like MOXIE would fly far in advance of a human expedition and would make a supply of oxygen for the astronauts to use once they get to Mars. Oxygen, besides allowing the astronauts to breath, could be used to create rocket fuel for the return journey.

The idea that ISRU could be used to facilitate human missions to Mars was first suggested by Dr. Robert Zubrin in his “Mars Direct” concept. The idea would decrease the cost of a Mars expedition by orders of magnitude. NASA was so impressed that it has included the concept in all of its Mars mission programming.

Other instruments include:

Mastcam-Z, which is “an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom. The instrument also will determine mineralogy of the Martian surface and assist with rover operations.”

SuperCam, which is “an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. The instrument will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith from a distance.”

Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which is “an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that will also contain an imager with high resolution to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials. PIXL will provide capabilities that permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before.“

Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), which is “a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds. SHERLOC will be the first UV Raman spectrometer to fly to the surface of Mars and will provide complementary measurements with other instruments in the payload.”

The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), which is “an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. “

Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), which is “a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape.”

The Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), which is “a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface.”

Mars 2020 will also collect and store rock and soil samples that could be retrieved by a future robotic mission and returned of a laboratory on Earth. A Mars sample return mission is considered one of the crucial precursors that should be done in advanced of a human mission to the Red Planet. Mars 2020 is slated to launch for a 2021 landing. NASA is currently evaluating possible landing sites for the robotic explorer.