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Van Kane

Update on NASA Mars Rover Plans

Posted by Van Kane

05-08-2015 15:55 CDT

Topics: Mars 2020, conference report

The second in a series of meetings to select the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover is in progress. At these meetings, the project's engineers describe the engineering capabilities and constraints on the mission and scientists describe their favorite sites for the rover to explore. Final selection of the landing site is several years away, but these meetings are good ways to catch up on the current plan for the mission. You can find all the presentations for this meeting here.

NASA's plan for Mars exploration

NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA's plan for Mars exploration

The Mars 2020 rover will be the sixth rover on Mars following the tiny Sojourner rover in 1997, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (the latter still going strong), the Curiosity rover now at Mars, and the European-Russian Mars 2018 ExoMars rover. Each succeeding rover becomes more progressively focused on exploring the past and present habitability of the Red Planet.

Instruments selected for the Mars 2020 rover


Instruments selected for the Mars 2020 rover
On the mast are upgraded versions of instruments on Curiosity: Mastcam-Z (color, stereo, 3D, zoom-capable cameras); and SuperCam (upgraded version of ChemCam). On the arm are PIXL, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and imager, and SHERLOC, a Raman spectrometer and imager. RIMFAX is a ground-penetrating radar; MEDA is a meteorological package; and MOXIE will advance goals in in-situ resource utilization by producing oxygen from carbon dioxide.

The Mars 2020 rover will carry a new generation of instruments to explore Mars. I covered these in some depth when the instrument selection was announced last year (see here).

Mars 2020 summary

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Mars 2020 summary

A single slide provides an update on the mission's development. The top half of the slide provides details that essentially mean that the engineering is progressing smoothly and advancing from one stage to the next. The news begins with the rover systems/project update.

The Curiosity rover carried on the bottom of the rover body to look down and shoot a movie of the descent and landing (for a refresher on that movie, see here). Currently, there is no plan to have a similar camera for the 2020 rover (but see below).

Navigation and hazard detection cameras on the Curiosity rover

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Navigation and hazard detection cameras on the Curiosity rover
Locations of the cameras aboard Curiosity. On the 2020 rover, the Mastcam-Z cameras will replace the Mastcam cameras.
Full-resolution front hazcam view of Curiosity's landing site, sol 0


Full-resolution front hazcam view of Curiosity's landing site, sol 0
Curiosity sees two wheels on soil, its shadow in front of it, a dark line of sand dunes, and a bright hill of the Gale crater central mountain in this photo taken from its front hazard avoidance camera late on the day it landed. The image has been processed to correct the fish-eye distortion of the camera.

In addition to the two stereo zoom science cameras (the Mastcam-Z cameras), the 2020 rover will carry a number of engineering cameras used to plan rover traverses and to look for hazards. On the Curiosity rover, these cameras take black and white images. On the Mars 2020 rover these cameras will take color images and have improved resolution.

Curiosity self-portrait, looking at Windjana, sol 613 (official version)


Curiosity self-portrait, looking at Windjana, sol 613 (official version)
Curiosity took a self-portrait with her MAHLI camera as she gazed upon the Windjana drill site on sol 613 (April 27, 2014). She would drill at Windjana on sol 621. On sol 627 (May 5), she took another few photos of the drill site and the cascades of sand below it; those later images have been merged into this mosaic to create a photo document of her scientific work at the site.

The Curiosity rover carries a microscopic camera (the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI) that is also able to focus to infinity, enabling it to examine the rover's wheels as well as take selfies. On the 2020 rover, there won't be a dedicated microscopic instrument, but two instruments include microscopic cameras. One of these in the SHERLOC composition instrument will be upgraded from its initial design to one similar to that carried by the Curiosity rover.

The final instrument news is that the ground penetrating radar unit, RIMFAX, is now formally a part of the instrument compliment following an engineering assessment on whether or not it could be accommodated within the rover. 

The last remaining major engineering design question that I'm aware of is whether or not the 2020 rover's descent system will include a Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) system. If included, it would use descent images to calculate the rover's position relative to a map stored on board to allow the descent stage to steer the rover to a safe landing spot. Many of the most interesting scientific sites have just a few, relatively small safe spots within landscapes of more challenging terrain. Including this capability would open more sites to the mission for consideration. The project has yet to decide on whether it will include this capability. If the TRN system is added, then there will be a camera to image the descent. I haven't heard whether these would be still images or movies or whether they would be saved for later analysis and release to the public.

Mars sample return options

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Mars sample return options

One of the primary goals for the 2020 rover will be to cache samples for a future mission to collect and place inside an ascent stage (essentially a small rocket). This would carry the samples to Mars orbit for collection by another spacecraft that would return them to Earth. A slide shows three concepts for these follow on rovers and landers. Two would carry the ascent stage in a tube on a large rover. A third concept would have the ascent stage on a stationary lander and use a small fetch rover to collect and return the cached samples. This follow on mission is not yet approved or funded, and may follow the 2020 rover by a number of years if it is flown.

See other posts from August 2015


Or read more blog entries about: Mars 2020, conference report


Quatguy: 08/05/2015 04:20 CDT

Very interesting summary. Will they be using the same wheel design as Curiosity or making any improvements to deal with the gouging problem?

van: 08/06/2015 12:32 CDT

Regarding the wheels, the 2020 rover will have more rugged wheels than Curiosity, although I haven't seen any details

masanori: 08/06/2015 01:15 CDT

Quite difficult to understand why "Explore Habitability" line is not extended to Oppy. In the image "NASA's plan for Mars exploration".

Arbitrary: 08/06/2015 04:52 CDT

Go Norway! RIMFAX is probably not unrelated to world's best offshore oil prospecting. And a MAV with a small simple fast rover that could collect the samples from the 2020 rover even if it has malfunctioned, would be great. More and more spacecrafts will be sent to Mars at every opposition from now on.

Arbitrary: 08/06/2015 04:58 CDT

I wish they tried out some tool for the arm to reconfigure the rover itself. Curiosity already has the ability to change its drill bits (has it been done yet?) So what about using the arm to place some equipment on the ground, or even repair a broken wheel somehow. Things we need to do on Mars sooner or later. I love the oxygen extraction experiment, although it is purely for engineering and has no scientific value.

Rei: 08/06/2015 05:26 CDT

If this mission was something being done on a New Frontiers budget I'd be more excited about it. But at a Flagship budget I really can't get excited about an O2 production experiment, a parachute facing camera, or pseudo-sample-return. I can't help but think of what else we could do with all of that money elsewhere in the solar system, on a body that's not already been so heavily explored as Mars (where one has to take into account "traffic jam" collision avoidance concerns due to all of the craft operating there). NASA has gotten Mars-obsessed and it's not a good thing.

Dr Morbius: 08/06/2015 11:17 CDT

It is disheartening to see that MOXIE instrument has not been de-scoped in favor of a real scientific instrument such SAM 2. The ESA people must be rolling their eyes; only NASA and their Manned Mission Directorate would be wacky enough to waste precious space on a rover for a such a stunt.

Arbitrary: 08/06/2015 11:37 CDT

I don't understand the criticism of MOXIE. Yes it does come at the cost of a scientific instrument. But if it pushes the technology readiness level enough for a Mars Ascent Vehicle to produce its own fuel for bringing samples home next decade, it is a great leap for future Mars science.

Dr Morbius: 08/06/2015 09:46 CDT

MOXIE (the O2 generation demonstration) is a ridiculous stunt that could have been done in any of a hundred University basements, but instead the knuckleheads in the Manned Spaceflight Directorate at NASA decided to fly the thing millions of miles to Mars and displace a real science instrument (such as SAM2) just so they could get in on all the action (robotic probes are stealing the limelight from the manned missions). So we end up with a mission that will drill and cache samples for a followup mission that will probably never fly, has not been funded, and isn't even in the planing stage and do an O2 generation stunt for a manned mission that will probably never fly either and will never be funded (got a trillion dollars to spare?). Would someone please give a grad student a million or so to do a MOXIE in an college basement and get that infernal device off this science mission. Hell, my son, an electronics whiz, could do it for 100K.

cynic: 08/06/2015 11:36 CDT

I love the 'heritage hardware (~90% of the flight system by mass) remark, as if this was the 19th century when metalwork drove the cost of modern systems. Meanwhile 'terrain relative navigation' is thrown in for fun as if software lines of code and the inevitable hardware-in-the-loop testing were free.....

Arbitrary: 08/07/2015 02:29 CDT

@Dr. Morbius Hey, cheer up a bit! Space missions will never be perfect, too many cooks in the soup, or how the saying goes. MOXIE is certainly about trivial chemistry. But making it work reliably on a spacecraft might not be trivial. And you know how rocket science engineers seem to have a stick shoved up somewhere. Fuel production on Mars must be demonstrated before any mission can rely on it. Maybe it is technologically trivial, but there are at least bureaucratic reasons for why it is hard to bet a multi billion dollar mission on it without demo. And with fuel production on Mars, we can start moving stuff from Mars.

Mewo: 08/07/2015 08:36 CDT

I still think the idea of leaving little canisters of soil for another rover to collect is silly. As for the landing location, my vote would be for Hellas Planitia.

Dr Morbius: 08/07/2015 09:39 CDT

As far as landing places, Mawrth Vallis has to be at the top of the list because of the various clay types there. The morphology people don't like it, but the spectroscopy people do and the morphology people made a mistake at Gusev.

reader: 08/07/2015 12:00 CDT

MOXIE is long overdue, the original MIP was supposed to fly in 2001. We have pushed back that critical technology development element by 20 years ! It would be a first time ever when direct utilization of extra-terrestrial resources ( apart from energy from sunlight ) is demonstrated. Also it is interesting to note that a version of technology that NASA calls TRN ( or ALHAT ) and has "never been done yet" flew on Chang'e-3 / Yutu. It is fundamentally critical to invest in enabling technologies - like MEDLI on Curiosity for instance, while maintaining good balance between technology advancements and scientific returns. Otherwise future mission capabilities will never substantially improve.

Dr Morbius: 08/07/2015 12:39 CDT

MOXIE would be fine on the ISS. At worst I would consider it for a stationary lander such as Mars InSight lander, but it is just crazy to lug this thing around all over the surface eating up valuable to weight, space, and electricity for a stunt that has no bearing at all on the mission. As far as landing places, I suspect that ESA will grab Mawrth Vallis so that may be out. A round of 2020 the landing site selection process just finished and Mawrth Vallis was not one of the finalist so I have to re-set my expectations. Landing site selection has gotten a lot better with MRO so I am confident that the team will pick a great location; Gale crater is certainly a winner. Hopefully there will be a blog posting here describing each candidate site. Exciting times, but we have to be patient.

dougforspaceexplr: 08/09/2015 01:28 CDT

I agree with Arbitrary and reader that NASA needs to get going to test this fuel producing MOXIE equipment on Mars so they can be prepared for astronauts on Mars. I still think Robert Zubrin has the best idea of living off the land on Mars to reduce costs but maybe this is a step in that direction. My suggestion for a landing location would be Nili Fossae as I think there is water ice there and I am sure that was one location where methane emissions were seen to come from which would be quite interesting to examine up close especially if any further incidents happen while Mars 2020 is there and operating.

Robert Clark: 08/10/2015 07:51 CDT

The announced possible sites for the Mars 2020 rover are indeed interesting. However, I think an important site was left out, Noctis Labyrinthus. Since the Viking missions it has been known that Noctis frequently displays low lying fogs or clouds. Since this is a low latitude and low altitude site it is possible these low lying fogs could contact the ground during the times the temperatures and pressures are in the range to allow liquid water. Bob Clark

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