A new Mars rover will stash samples of rock and soil in a miniature vault that could one day be brought back to Earth, Nasa has announced.
The rover, which will visit the planet in 2020, is seen as a major step towards meeting President Barack Obama’s challenge to send humans to Mars within 30 years.
It will drill into rocks and soil, collecting up to 31 samples that will be stored in a cache.
Scientists hope to send another spacecraft to pick up the samples, which will be examined in laboratories back on Earth to determine whether Martian dust poses a hazard to human health.
The rover will also help designers of future manned missions invent ways of collecting carbon dioxide, which could be used to produce oxygen and rocket fuel.
Jim Green, director of Nasa’s planetary science division, said: “The Mars 2020 mission will provide a unique capability to address the major questions of habitability and life in the solar system.”
The as-yet-unnamed rover will look almost identical to Curiosity, which has been roaming the planet for almost a year, taking rock samples and spectacular photos of the landscape.
By keeping the design the same, scientists hope to minimise the costs and risks involved in flying to the planet.
Curiosity has already found evidence that water once flowed on Mars and Nasa says searching for signs of past life is the “next logical step”.
Jack Mustard, chairman of the science definition team, said: “The Mars 2020 mission concept does not presume that life ever existed on Mars.
“However, given the recent Curiosity findings, past Martian life seems possible, and we should begin the difficult endeavour of seeking the signs of life.
“No matter what we learn, we would make significant progress in understanding the circumstances of early life existing on Earth and the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life.”