NASA’s Mars 2020 rover ready for final design and construction
NASA recently announced that it is ready to proceed with the final design and construction of its next Mars rover, currently scheduled to launch in the summer of 2020 and land on Mars in February 2021. The Mars 2020 rover will search for evidence of past life on Mars and collect and cache soil and rock samples for possible return to Earth on a later 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 lower costs, the Mars 2020 rover will be built in a similar fashion to the six-wheeled, one-ton Curiosity rover, but with a new payload of scientific instruments. One instrument, the Mars In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), will demonstrate a way that future astronauts on Mars might produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide gas of the Martian atmosphere for both propellant and breathing.
The Mars 2020 rover will carry a new subsystem for collecting and preparing rock and soil samples, which includes a coring drill and rack of sample tubes. About 30 of these tubes will be cached at select locations for return on a future sample-retrieval mission. Back on Earth, the samples could be studied in greater detail for evidence of past life on Mars and possible health dangers to future human missions to Mars.
Two science instruments mounted on the rover’s robotic arm will be used to decide where to collect samples from by analyzing the physical, mineral, chemical, and organic characteristics of Martian rocks. Two instruments on the rover’s mast will provide high-resolution imaging and three kinds of spectroscopy for studying rocks and soil from a distance. These instruments will also help determine which rock targets should be studied up close.
A suite of sensors on deck of the rover will monitor weather and dust conditions, and ground-penetrating radar will assess the planet’s subsurface geologic structure.
“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.”
In addition to the range trigger, terrain-relative navigation on the rover will use onboard analysis of downward-looking images taken during the descent, matching them to a map indicating safe and unsafe landing zones.
“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.”
In addition to the descent cameras, Mars 2020 rover will also carry an Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) microphone. Information for the cameras and microphone will provide vital data for the planning of future Mars landings.
“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.”
While microphones have been flown on previous missions to Mars, none have actually been used on the Martian surface. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander carried the first microphone to Mars but crashed into the surface of the planet in 1999. The second microphone flown to Mars in 2008 onboard Phoenix was never turned on due to a potential electrical problem.
“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.
Another microphone will be mounted on the rover’s SuperCam instrument. Like the ChemCam instrument on Curiosity, SuperCam will examine the chemical and mineral makeup of rock targets at a distance using a laser and spectrometers. The microphone will enhance the data set captured by SuperCam because analysis of the volume of the sound (kind of a crack or loud pop) can be used to study the mass of material vaporized by a laser shot.
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 rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. The program currently consists of two active rovers on the surface and three NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars. NASA also plans to launch InSight, a stationary lander designed to study the interior of Mars, in 2018.
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.