NASA's next Mars rover progresses toward 2020 launch

NASA's next Mars rover progresses toward 2020 launch
NASA's 2020 Mars rover mission will go to a region of Mars thought to have offered favorable conditions long ago for microbial life, and the rover will search for signs of past life there. It will also collect and cache samples for potential return to Earth, for many types of laboratory analysis. As a pioneering step toward how humans on Mars will use the Red Planet's natural resources, the rover will extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. This 2016 image comes from computer-assisted-design work on the 2020 rover. The design leverages many successful features of NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, but it adds new science instruments and a sampling system to carry out the new goals for the mission. Credit: NASA

After an extensive review process and passing a major development milestone, NASA is ready to proceed with final design and construction of its next Mars rover, currently targeted to launch in summer of 2020 and arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.

The Mars 2020 rover will investigate a region of Mars where the ancient environment may have been favorable for microbial life, probing the Martian rocks for evidence of past life. Throughout its investigation, it will collect samples of soil and rock, and cache them on the surface for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

"The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth," said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA's Journey to Mars—to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet."

To reduce risk and provide cost savings, the 2020 rover will look much like its six-wheeled, one-ton predecessor, Curiosity, but with an array of new and enhancements to explore Mars as never before. For example, the rover will conduct the first investigation into the usability and availability of Martian resources, including oxygen, in preparation for human missions.

Mars 2020 will carry an entirely new subsystem to collect and prepare Martian rocks and soil samples that includes a coring drill on its arm and a rack of sample tubes. About 30 of these sample tubes will be deposited at select locations for return on a potential future sample-retrieval mission. In laboratories on Earth, specimens from Mars could be analyzed for evidence of past life on Mars and possible health hazards for future human missions.

Two science instruments mounted on the rover's robotic arm will be used to search for signs of past life and determine where to collect samples by analyzing the chemical, mineral, physical and organic characteristics of Martian rocks. On the rover's mast, two science instruments will provide high-resolution imaging and three types of spectroscopy for characterizing rocks and soil from a distance, also helping to determine which rock targets to explore up close.

A suite of sensors on the mast and deck will monitor weather conditions and the dust environment, and a ground-penetrating radar will assess sub-surface geologic structure.

The Mars 2020 rover will use the same sky crane landing system as Curiosity, but will have the ability to land in more challenging terrain with two enhancements, making more rugged sites eligible as safe landing candidates.

"By adding what's known as range trigger, we can specify where we want the parachute to open, not just at what velocity we want it to open," said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "That shrinks our landing area by nearly half."

Terrain-relative navigation on the new rover will use onboard analysis of downward-looking images taken during descent, matching them to a map that indicates zones designated unsafe for landing.

"As it is descending, the spacecraft can tell whether it is headed for one of the unsafe zones and divert to safe ground nearby," said Chen. "With this capability, we can now consider landing areas with unsafe zones that previously would have disqualified the whole area. Also, we can land closer to a specific science destination, for less driving after landing."

There will be a suite of cameras and a microphone that will capture the never-before-seen or heard imagery and sounds of the entry, descent and landing sequence. Information from the descent cameras and microphone will provide valuable data to assist in planning future Mars landings, and make for thrilling video.

"Nobody has ever seen what a parachute looks like as it is opening in the Martian atmosphere," said JPL's David Gruel, assistant flight system manager for the Mars 2020 mission. "So this will provide valuable engineering information."

Microphones have flown on previous missions to Mars, including NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008, but never have actually been used on the surface of the Red Planet.

"This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time, and it could also provide useful engineering information," said Mars 2020 Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace of JPL.

Once a mission receives preliminary approval, it must go through four rigorous technical and programmatic reviews - known as Key Decision Points (KDP) - to proceed through the phases of development prior to launch. Phase A involves concept and requirements definition, Phase B is preliminary design and technology development, Phase C is final design and fabrication, and Phase D is system assembly, testing and launch. Mars 2020 has just passed its KDP-C milestone.

"Since Mars 2020 is leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, a significant amount of the mission's heritage components have already been built during Phases A and B," said George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "With the KDP to enter Phase C completed, the project is proceeding with final design and construction of the new systems, as well as the rest of the heritage elements for the mission."

The Mars 2020 mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. Driven by scientific discovery, the program currently includes two active rovers and three NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars. NASA also plans to launch a stationary Mars lander in 2018, InSight, to study the deep interior of Mars.

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Jul 15, 2016
Five rovers so far, and no organics analysis and no deep drilling.

When is NASA going to fess up to the schizoid approach they espouse to actually looking for life? For publicity purposes they say their missions to Mars are to look for life, a topic that is of high interest to their investors (you and me, the taxpayers). And yet on the other hand they are deliberately avoiding doing just that. They have even appointed a "planetary protection officer" to keep investigations clear of places where life is the most likely. All these rover missions must be heaven for geologists, but they are not what the public wants to see. It's a bunch of schist.

Jul 16, 2016
looks like its made of billion pieces.

cant they reduce it to a 100....

Jul 16, 2016
I applaud NASA, as I see improvement in nearly every aspect of this mission as compared to previous landers. The Moxie oxygen experiment is right thing to do to lay the ground work for human visits. It doesn't matter how simple the chemistry is, we can't trust lives on it until we demonstrate the process actually works in situ on Mars. As I recall, the ISRU idea and even the word "moxie" appear in Dr. Zubrin's book about Mars. The improvement in landing precision helps to open Mars up and gets us into even more interesting areas. The coring drill and sample return give us the opportunity to advance science so we will be ready to send people. Another attempt at a microphone is very wise. Carl Sagan first advocated that idea in a 1996 letter to NASA. While the science/engineering returns might be modest, so is the cost, and it might help to make Mars more real to give it a sound track. My gut tells me we are going to learn more than we realized, even though the air is thin.

Jul 16, 2016
Five rovers so far, no organics analysis and no deep drilling.

Curiosity has a complete suite of organic analysis, and the first drills that penetrates into sediments. It's primary mission was to test for habitability (water, redox potentials) and after that it switched primary mission to look for life - it has been doing so for a year now.

That the sample return rover has no deep drill is because it had to reuse Curiosity's infrastructure but also because the ExoMars rover will do the deep drilling so that there would have been an overlap.

Honestly, I don't understand why people criticize what they are already doing (and then turn around and claim it is avoided).

The only thing I could agree with is that geology science is prioritized, not because it detracts from astrobiology, it is necessary for it, but because it is an often stated circumstance.

Jul 20, 2016
NASA is pathetic. They're talking about sending a rocket to Europa to drill into an ocean and they can't even properly explore Mars, which is five times closer and a hundred times more hospitable. Meanwhile, they barely have the rocket available to launch any of this!! They should get the Russians to evacuate the odious money-pit the ISS, then blow it out of the sky. It's sucked up $200 billion and returned almost NOTHING of value. That's 50 Hubble telescope values worth of waste.

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