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NASA’s 2020 Mars mission could return soil samples to Earth

NASA is headed back to Mars and this time it could send a small package back to Earth.

The U.S. space agency announced late Tuesday that it will return to Mars in 2020, the latest mission aimed at preparing NASA for a manned mission later this century.

Speaking Tuesday, NASA’s top brass said the latest mission to Mars represents the latest step in the space agency’s quest of eventually sending men to Mars. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the mission has the approval and backing of President Barack Obama.

“The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program,” said Bolden. “With this next mission, we’re ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s.”

The mission is expected to be an extension of the current Mars mission. In a statement released by NASA, officials say the mission will mirror that of its current Mars rover, Curiosity, which is currently scanning the planet for signs of life. The plan, according to NASA, will design and build a new Mars robotic science rover.The 2020 mission will constitute another step toward being responsive to high-priority science goals and the president’s challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s. The specific payload and science instruments for the 2020 mission will be openly competed, following the Science Mission Directorate’s established processes for instrument selection, the agency said in a statement.

“The new science rover builds off the tremendous success from Curiosity and will have new instruments,” NASA’s associate administrator for science, and astronaut John Grunsfeld said. “This mission concept fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity.”

While outlining the specifics of the photographic equipment planned for the next rover, Grunsfeld said the 2020 mission could provide scientists with the first high-definition photos of the planet’s surface.

“I have on my iPad a 3D panorama that I use quite a lot of Curiosity that somebody outside of NASA stitched together of the early photos and you can explore the various sites,” Grunsfeld said. “And as you move it around, the accelerometer in the iPad will shift the view and you can look down on the deck and up at the sky…it gives me a feeling as if I’m on Mars. I’d like to go to Mars.”

That said, it remains unclear exactly what the mission will entail. According to Grunsfeld, one idea is for the rover to collect and store soil and rock samples that could be jettisoned back to Earth. The Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which publishes long-term goals for exploring the solar system, touted a sample-storing mission as a top priority over the next decade, saying soil samples from Mars could provide valuable data for astronomers here on Earth.

The announcement’s timing was especially interesting as it comes less than a day after NASA officials held a press conference aimed at updating reporters on Curiosity’s progress on Mars. Officials say the mission has discovered a number of interesting findings. According to NASA, the rover has tentatively identified oxygen and chlorine compounds, including chlorinated methane compounds — one-carbon organics that could increase the changes of life once existing on Mars.