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NASA's Mars 2020 rover will make oxygen, peek underground

NASA announces the payload for its next Mars rover and it's set to be even more sophisticated than the highly successful Curiosity mission.

Mars 2020 rover drawing
A concept drawing for the Mars 2020 rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Humans aren't listed on NASA's Mars 2020 rover payload, but the new mission will get us as close to being on the Red Planet as possible without actually sending a person along for the ride. The space agency has its hands full with trying to one-up the Curiosity rover's considerable accomplishments. To that end, it sent out a call for proposals earlier this year for scientific instruments to head out into space.

The 58 proposals came from researchers and engineers worldwide. The proposals were culled down to just 7 winning ideas, which will be developed in collaboration with scientists from institutions ranging from MIT to Los Alamos National Laboratory to NASA's own Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Here's a look at the next-gen rover's planned equipment payload:

Mastcam-Z: A highly advanced camera system able to produce panoramic and stereoscopic images.

SuperCam: A triple-threat device that handles imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. It also seeks out organic compounds at a distance.

Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL): An X-ray fluorescence spectrometer able to delve into the details of chemical elements on Mars.

Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC): This spectrometer not only sports a cool acronym, it also detects organic compounds and determines mineralogy.

Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE): Humans, get ready. This experiment will attempt to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars' atmosphere.

Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA): This instrument is kind of like a Mars weather station. It will measure temperature, pressure, humidity, wind, and dust.

Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX): "CSI" meets Mars with this ground-penetrating radar that will gaze into the subsurface to study geology that is normally out of sight.

NASA estimates the cost for developing all the instruments at about $130 million. The oxygen experiment is particularly interesting. "This technology demonstration will pave the way for more affordable human missions to Mars where oxygen is needed for life support and rocket propulsion," says NASA's James Reuther, deputy associate administrator for programs for the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

NASA says the new rover will be similar to Curiosity, which is now a proven design seeing as it has been in successful operation since 2012. "Mars exploration will be this generation's legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans' journey to the Red Planet," says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Mars rover instruments
This concept image shows where the instruments will be located. NASA