A rover that NASA plans to launch to Mars in 2020 is slated to collect samples of the Red Planet while setting the stage for a future human mission, the space agency announced Tuesday.
The mission, which is estimated to cost $1.5 billion, also has science goals similar to previous Mars rover missions, including the search for past habitable environments.
The Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on the planet last August, discovered clues earlier this year, that Mars could have once supported life. The rover Opportunity also found evidence of a watery past.
But a more thorough analysis of ancient microbial life requires that samples be returned to Earth, scientists say.
The objectives for the new mission suggest that the rover collect up to 31 samples from the surface of Mars to gain a better understanding of the planet. The samples could possibly be brought to Earth as part of a later mission.
Jack Mustard, chairman of the mission's science definition team and a professor at Brown University, said such a haul "would be an extraordinary, extraordinary repository" that would bring great insight into the development of "habitability" on the planet.
Mustard is part of a team of 19 scientists that formed in January to decide the rover's scientific objectives, which were presented Tuesday during a teleconference from NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The team is made up of scientists from around the country, including a few from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. JPL manages the Mars rover missions for NASA.
The agency is expected to replicate much of Curiosity's design — and use some of the rover's space parts — to save costs on building the new rover.
When Curiosity landed on Mars Aug. 5, JPL engineers called the operation "clean" and said it was near-perfect. Still, one of the other objectives for the new rover mission is to improve that technology, making the landing even more precise.
The rover is expected to borrow Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror" landing sequence, which included the use of a 100-pound parachute and a sky crane.
The new rover, which has yet to be named, is scheduled to land on Mars in 2021. NASA hopes that information it obtains will help the space agency determine how humans can survive on the planet during a future mission.
President Obama has set a goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, but the timeline is still uncertain, as it is for the rock material, with John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington, saying "we also haven't played out a road map for how we would return cachable samples."