US space agency NASA has started building its next mission to Mars that will be flying to the Red Planet in about three years.
If you have been keeping a bird’s eye view of the Mars 2020 mission it would feel that the new mission isn’t any different from the Curiosity Rover mission and that the rover itself doesn’t bring a lot to the table. But that’s not the case as the rover has been amp’d up a great deal with seven new instruments that will deliver more scientific information than ever before.
Further the new rover will pack a set of redesigned wheels and will have more autonomy on the mission thereby enabling the mission team to work more on the data sent across by the rover rather than spend time controlling it. A drill will capture rock cores, while a caching system with a miniature robotic arm will seal up these samples. Then, they’ll be deposited on the Martian surface for possible pickup by a future mission.
The new hardware is being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which manages the mission for the agency. It includes the Mars 2020 mission’s cruise stage, which will fly the rover through space, and the descent stage, a rocket-powered “sky crane” that will lower it to the planet’s surface. Both of these stages have recently moved into JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility.
Mars 2020 relies heavily on the system designs and spare hardware previously created for Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012. Roughly 85 percent of the new rover’s mass is based on this “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.”
Despite its similarities to Mars Science Laboratory, the new mission has very different goals. Mars 2020’s instruments will seek signs of ancient life by studying terrain that is now inhospitable, but once held flowing rivers and lakes, more than 3.5 billion years ago.
To achieve these new goals, the rover has a suite of cutting-edge science instruments. It will seek out biosignatures on a microbial scale: An X-ray spectrometer will target spots as small as a grain of table salt, while an ultraviolet laser will detect the “glow” from excited rings of carbon atoms. A ground-penetrating radar will be the first instrument to look under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water and ice up to 30 feet (10 meters) deep, depending on the material.
The rover is getting some upgraded Curiosity hardware, including color cameras, a zoom lens and a laser that can vaporize rocks and soil to analyze their chemistry.
“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.”
The mission will also undertake a marathon sample hunt: The rover team will try to drill at least 20 rock cores, and possibly as many as 30 or 40, for possible future return to Earth.