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NASA's next Mars rover will make oxygen, look for farmland

An artist rendering shows the seven instruments to be built onto the Mars 2020 rover. An artist rendering shows the seven instruments to be built onto the Mars 2020 rover.
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Mars 2020 rover looks to sustain human life
Mars 2020 rover looks to sustain human life
Mars 2020 rover looks to sustain human life
Mars 2020 rover looks to sustain human life
Mars 2020 rover looks to sustain human life
Mars 2020 rover looks to sustain human life
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Mars 2020 rover looks a lot like the Curiosity rover
  • It has better and new exploration technology
  • Cameras will see in stereo and spectrometers will analyze soil for organic material
  • It will collect soil samples for future missions to send back

(CNN) -- For 17 years, NASA rovers have laid down tire tracks on Mars. But details the space agency divulged this week about its next Martian exploration vehicle underscored NASA's ultimate goal.

Footprints are to follow someday.

The last three rovers -- Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity -- confirmed the Red Planet's ability to support life and searched for signs of past life.

"An ability to live off the Martian land would transform future exploration of the planet."
-- NASA statement

The Mars rover of the next decade will hone in on ways to sustain future life there, human life.

"The 2020 rover will help answer questions about the Martian environment that astronauts will face and test technologies they need before landing on, exploring and returning from the Red Planet," said NASA's William Gerstenmaier who works on human missions.

This will include experiments that convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen "for human respiration."

Oxygen could also be used on Mars in making rocket fuel that would allow astronauts to refill their tanks.

Twin rovers

The 2020 rover is the near spitting image of Curiosity and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced plans to launch the new edition not long after Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012.

But the 2020 rover has new and improved features. The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, or MOXIE for short, is just one.

Curiosity on Mars: A year of exploration
NASA posted this snap of astronaut James H. Newman on November 20, 1998, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the International Space Station. NASA posted this snap of astronaut James H. Newman on November 20, 1998, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the International Space Station.
Out-of-this-world NASA Instagram photos
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Photos from NASA\'s Instagram Photos from NASA's Instagram

There are super cameras that will send back 3D panoramic images and spectrometers that will analyze the chemical makeup of minerals with an apparent eye to farming.

The Mars rover Curiosity does a test drill on a rock dubbed "Bonanza King" to see if it would be a good place to dig deeper and take a sample. But after the rock shifted, the test was stopped. The NASA rover has now spent two years on the red planet. Curiosity set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images. The Mars rover Curiosity does a test drill on a rock dubbed "Bonanza King" to see if it would be a good place to dig deeper and take a sample. But after the rock shifted, the test was stopped. The NASA rover has now spent two years on the red planet. Curiosity set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images.
Mars rover Curiosity
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Photos: Mars rover Curiosity Photos: Mars rover Curiosity

"An ability to live off the Martian land would transform future exploration of the planet," NASA said in a statement.

The 2020 rover will also create a job for a future mission to complete, once the technology emerges to return to Earth from Mars. It will collect soil samples to be sent back for lab analysis at NASA.

Mars since 1964

In the 1960s, the public focus on NASA centered on missions to the moon. Neil Armstrong, who took his "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" 45 years ago, was the first human to set foot on a celestial body.

But by then, the space agency had already sent a satellite to Mars -- the first in 1964. In 1976, the first two landers, Viking 1 and 2, touched down on its surface. The first rover, Pathfinder, began rolling around 20 years later.

In 2016, NASA plans to send a new stationary lander, InSight, to Mars to drop a probe into the ground and research the planet's core. It's currently undergoing testing.

The future mission to bring back soil samples collected by the Mars 2020 rover is to be robotic.

It's not clear when Earthlings can look forward to the next small step for a human that's a giant leap for humankind.

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