Spaceflight Insider

ULA’s workhorse Atlas V selected for Mars 2020 mission

Atlas V 541 launch of Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

Archive photo of an Atlas V 541 launch with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). (Click for full view) Photo Credit: NASA

NASA has again called upon United Launch Alliance (ULA) to provide launch services for a flagship mission to Mars. The agency announced that ULA has been awarded the contract to launch the Mars 2020 rover atop an Atlas V 541 vehicle and is aiming for liftoff in July 2020.

ULA has been instrumental in many of the agency’s missions to the Red Planet, an achievement of which the company is justifiably proud.

“We are honored that NASA has selected ULA to provide another robotic science rover to Mars on this tremendously exciting mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA’s vice president of Custom Services, in a release issued by the company. “Our launch vehicles have a rich heritage with Mars, supporting 17 successful missions over more than 50 years. ULA and our heritage rockets have launched every U.S. spacecraft to the Red Planet, including Mars Science Lab, as well as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.”

ULA’s dependable Atlas V – long a favored choice for many of the country’s commercial, science, exploration, and national security payloads – was selected to launch Mars 2020 via competitive procurement under the NASA Launch Services contract, and will be outfitted in its 541 configuration: 5-meter payload fairing, 4 supplemental solid rocket motors, and a single RL10 engine powering the Centaur stage.

NASA's Mars 2020 rover to Mars to be launched by ULA's Atlas V 541 rocket

This 2016 image comes from computer-assisted-design work on NASA’s 2020 Mars rover. (Click to enlarge) Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Though nominally similar in appearance to, and largely constructed with spare parts from, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – better known as Curiosity – Mars 2020 will have a markedly different suite of instruments, some of which are specifically tailored to search for signs that Mars once hosted life. The rover will also have the ability to collect samples of rock and soil, leaving them in sealed tubes for a potential future mission to return to Earth.

A notable piece of equipment on the rover is MOXIE – the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. MOXIE is designed to demonstrate the feasibility of extracting oxygen from Martian atmosphere. Beyond being necessary for humans to breathe, oxygen is a key component in most propulsion systems. Being able to produce oxygen on Mars can greatly reduce the logistical considerations for a crewed mission to the Red Planet.

Scientists also hope to hear sounds from Mars for the first time. Mars 2020 is outfitted with microphones, and it is hoped that scientists and engineers will be able to collect acoustic data during the “entry, descent, and landing” (EDL) phase and during surface operations. Though other missions have included microphones, they either did not survive the landing attempt (Mars Polar Lander, in 1999) or it was determined to be too risky to be activated due to a potential electrical problem (Phoenix, in 2008).

As with prior interplanetary missions, Mars 2020 will undergo a rigorous “disinfection” program in order to adhere to strict planetary protection definitions, which are meant to mitigate the transference of life between Earth and other bodies in the Solar System. These preventive measures – in addition to all necessary spacecraft processing, launch vehicle integration, tracking and telemetry/data assets, and launch services – are included in the approximately $243 million price tag to launch the mission.

Part of NASA’s overall “Journey to Mars” initiative, Mars 2020 will add to the body of knowledge amassed by its predecessors and scientists hope that it will give a clear indication of Mars’ past prospects for habitability. The rover will join a growing list of missions, all with the ultimate goal of sending humans to the Red Planet.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO and president, feels that the company’s track record makes them the right choice for the mission: “With 64 successful missions spanning more than a decade of operational service, the commercially developed Atlas V is uniquely qualified to provide the best value launch service for these critical science missions.”

NASA's Mars 2020 rover to Mars to be launched by ULA's Atlas V 541 rocket

Image Credit: NASA


Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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