Nasa's 'Mars 2020' mission will hunt for signs of past life

The next mission that Nasa sends to Mars will use methods originally developed to find the the oldest life on Earth to hunt down measurements that could indicate signs of ancient life once existing on the planet.

The techniques, known as 'spatially resolved biosignature analysis', involve procedures like X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy. They're capable of mapping the elements, minerals and organic components of bits of rock as small as the width of a human hair.

Major step up

They're also major step up from tools available on the rovers currently exploring our second-closest neighbour in the solar system.

"Previous missions to Mars have used a relatively broad brush - analyzing average chemistry over roughly the size of a postage stamp - to 'follow the water' and seek ancient habitable environments," said Ken Williford, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory'.

"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."

Future pickup

As well as hunting for signs of ancient life, the rover will collect samples that will hopefully one day be examined in labs back home. It'll collect about 30 to 40 rock and sediment samples, seal them in titanium tubes, and then leave them in a safe place for future pickup.

"Mars 2020 represents a crucial first step towards a possible Mars sample return. 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 - including the presence of life if it was there," added Williford.

"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."

Via Science Daily

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.