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NASA plans ‘souped-up’ rover for Mars 2020 mission

This artist's rendition depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outrcrop. The mission will not only seek out and study an area likely to have been habitable in the distant past, but it will take the next, bold step in robotic exploration of the Red Planet by seeking signs of past microbial life itself. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This artist’s rendition depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outcrop. The mission is planned to not only seek out and study an area likely to have been habitable in the distant past, but it will take the next, bold step in robotic exploration of the Red Planet by seeking signs of past microbial life itself. Image & Caption Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The rover for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission bears a strong resemblance to the Curiosity rover currently exploring the surface of Mars. However, it will have a number of improvements and instruments to carry out its search for signs of past microbial life on the Red Planet. A recent NASA press release described the rover as a “souped-up science machine”.

If everything goes as the space agency has planned, the rover will have seven new science instruments, re-designed wheels, and increased autonomy. The new rover will also have a drill for extracting rock core samples as well as a caching system for sealing these samples and depositing them for a possible return to Earth by a future mission.

“Our next instruments will build on the success of MSL, which was a proving ground for new technology,” said George Tahu, NASA’s Mars 2020 program executive. “These will gather science data in ways that weren’t possible before.”

Hardware for the mission is being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Both the cruise stage, which will fly the rover through space, and the rocket-powered “sky crane” descent stage were recently moved into JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility.

The Mars 2020 mission will rely heavily on systems and spare hardware already developed for Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) Curiosity rover. About 85 percent of the new rover’s mass is based on what NASA calls “heritage hardware”.

“The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed, or even already exists, is a major advantage for this mission,” said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “It saves us money, time[,] and[,] most of all, reduces risk.”

The rover is being designed to carry a number of new science instruments to aid in its search for signs of ancient life on Mars.The rover will have an X-ray spectrophotometer can target spots as small as a grain of sand and an ultraviolet laser that can detect the ‘glow” of excited rings of carbon atoms.  The rover will also be able to see beneath the surface of Mars using a ground-penetrating radar capable of mapping layers of rock, ice, and water up to 30 feet (10 meters) below the surface.

The Mars 2020 rover will have 23 cameras, many of which are upgraded, color-capable versions of cameras carried by Curiosity. The SuperCam instrument on the Mars 2020 rover is to Curiosity’s ChemCam. SuperCam can identify the chemical makeup of targets as small as a pencil point from over 20 feet (7 meters) away.

“Our next instruments will build on the success of MSL, which was a proving ground for new technology,” said George Tahu, NASA’s Mars 2020 program executive. “These will gather science data in ways that weren’t possible before.”

As part of its mission objective to find evidence of past life on Mars, the rover will drill at least 20 rock cores, and possibly as many as 40, for a possible return to Earth by a later mission.

“Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer,” said Ken Farley of JPL, Mars 2020’s project scientist. “What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we’re alone in the universe.”

Mars 2020 is scheduled to launch in July or August of 2020 atop an Atlas V 541 variant booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. If everything goes according to plan, the rover should land on the surface of Mars sometime in February 2021.

Video courtesy of NASA

 

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise.

While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004.

Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

Reader Comments

In reference to an earlier article, this rover needs to go to a region where life may have existed, and not have any restrictions of no go zones.

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