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Mars 2020 rover rolls into final design and fabrication phase

Posted by Jason Davis

15-07-2016 18:16 CDT

Topics: Mars 2020, Mastcam-Z, mission status, Mars

NASA's next Mars rover is rolling off the drawing board and into its final design and fabrication phase, the agency announced today, during a televised event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that highlighted some of the mission's technology.

The one-ton Mars 2020 rover is based largely on its predecessor, Curiosity, but comes equipped with a different suite of science instruments designed to search directly for signs of ancient Martian life. The mission has cleared a project milestone known as Key Decision Point C, which keeps the portable science laboratory on track for launch in July or August of 2020, with a landing in February 2021.

"NASA has given us the go-ahead to complete development of the mission," said project scientist Kenneth Farley, standing next to a full-scale testing mockup of Curiosity. "This is a really big, important step for us."

During the rover's two-year mission, it will search for signs of past life in rocks known to preserve organic biosignatures. Mars 2020—which is now eligible for a Curiosity-like name now that the project is in phase C—will also collect rock and soil samples for a possible future Earth return, and extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere to test technologies that may be needed for human visits.

The surface of Mars is not currently conducive to life, but Curiosity found that it may have been in the past.

"Billions of years ago, there were rivers and lakes on the surface of the planet," Farley said. "We're going to focus our exploration on this time in the distant past." 

The completion of Key Decision Point C also means the project has received a baseline cost. NASA officials said it would take $2.1 billion to develop and launch the mission, and another $300 million to operate the rover during its primary mission of one Martian year—slightly more than two Earth years.


Microphones on Mars!

The Planetary Society has worked for 20 years to capture sound from Mars. Today, the Mars 2020 team announced the inclusion of microphones aboard their rover, as explained by Dr. Bruce Betts. The Society has been working with the project's SuperCam team, and discussing possible ways to collaborate on their microphone.

Landing and roving

In order for the Mars 2020 rover to look for signs of ancient Mars microbes, it must examine rocks formed while Mars was wet—approximately 3.5 billion years ago. Scientists have narrowed down a list of potential locations to eight candidates. 

"The most important decision that we have ahead of us is where we're going to send the rover," Farley said. Safety is the biggest consideration, including both the entry, descent and landing sequence (EDL) and hazardous terrain the rover must cross to get to scientifically interesting spots. Over the course of the Curiosity mission, rough terrain has caused the rover's wheels to puncture and tear.

Lessons learned from Curiosity will be applied to the new rover, according to Allen Chen, the mission's EDL lead.

"We are looking at a new design of the wheels that should help mitigate that," Chen said. "Which principally has to do with thickening the wheels to be more robust to those puncture-type concerns that we've had with Curiosity."

The Mars 2020 landing sequence will resemble Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror," culminating with a hair-raising, rocket-powered descent and skycrane maneuver. But this time around, the size of the landing ellipse can shrink by about 50 percent, thanks to a smarter parachute deployment timing sequence and a feature called terrain-relative navigation.

"On Curiosity, once we popped the heat shield, we took pictures of the ground with a camera, but we didn't use that for landing," said Chen. "This time, we can use those pictures and match them up with an onboard map." Once the rover knows where it is, it can make further trajectory changes and land closer to the more hazardous targets that scientists prefer.

"We prefer landing on things that are flat," Chen said. "But they keep telling us that flat is boring."

Mars 2020 landing technique animation


Mars 2020 landing technique animation

Hearing the bells and whistles

The sights and sounds of EDL will be captured by a suite of cameras and a microphone. Engineers will get their first look at an off-world parachute deployment, while audio of critical events will help NASA piece together information about the landing sequence.

Another microphone on the SuperCam instrument will capture sounds from the surface as the rover trundles along. The Planetary Society, which helped fly a microphone on the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander in 1999, has been working with the project's SuperCam team and discussing possible ways to collaborate on their microphone. The Society also serves as the education and public outreach partner for the Mastcam-Z instrument.

Other bells and whistles on the rover include the possibility of a small helicopter drone, which appears to be visible in new renderings of the spacecraft. During today's event, however, the drone was downplayed.

"We have been asked to study the possibility of bringing a helicopter along with us, so this is under consideration by NASA," Kenneth Farley said. "But Mars 2020 is not yet certainly going to be flying a drone." 

Mars 2020 rover schematic (new)

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Mars 2020 rover schematic (new)

Future plans

Whether or not Mars 2020 finds signs of past or present life, the mission could have far-reaching implications for future exploration of the planet.

The rover will fill about 30 sample tubes with rock and soil samples, and deposit them for pickup by a future retrieval vehicle. Those samples could then be shipped back to Earth for analysis. A Mars sample return was listed as one of the top priorities in the last Decadal Survey.

NASA's human spaceflight division is particularly interested in the results of the MOXIE instrument, which will ingest carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen. That oxygen could then be used for rocket propellant and breathable air.

As the event wrapped up, a viewer asked the JPL team when they believed humans would walk on Mars.

"The Journey to Mars will be a long one," said Allen Chen. "It's certainly ahead of us in our future, but I hope it comes soon."

See other posts from July 2016


Or read more blog entries about: Mars 2020, Mastcam-Z, mission status, Mars


Roshaan: 07/15/2016 10:31 CDT

Yes! Nicely written, Jason! I was just watching the facebook Live video that JPL did for their Mars 2020 rover. The inclusion of the microphone for this rover really got me. I am super excited to hear the sounds of Mars. SO wont simply be the sights of Mars...but the SIGHTS AND SOUNDS of Mars! And as the outreach coordinator for TPS in Pakistan, I cannot wait what projects does TPS have in store for its volunteer network as far as that microphone is concerned.

Brian Schmidt: 07/16/2016 02:21 CDT

$2.4 billion in 2016 dollars for Mars2020 isn't much savings over $2.5b in 2012 dollars for Curiosity, even with inflation. Seems to me that legacy technology and the lack (so far) of delayed launch like Curiosity had should result in a cheaper mission than $2.4b. Any more info on this?

LocalFluff: 07/17/2016 05:29 CDT

Maybe they got the same budget, but this time they can put the costs for the rover developments on instruments instead. It will be more than 100 kg (10%) heavier than Curiosity.

DrMorbius: 07/20/2016 06:39 CDT

This is such a peculiar mission. It will be drilling samples for a followup mission that has not been planed, designed or funded--nothing. How is that going to work? What is really, really unfortunate is the idiotic MOXIE experiment. This is an experiment that could have been done in any of 100 university basements. Need less Gs than Earth? Put it in a centrifuge on the ISS. If it really, absolutely, positively has to go to Mars, for the love of gawd, why not put it on a stationary mission like INSIGHT? Instead Mars 2020 will have haul this piece of junk all over the surface. And what did MOXIE displace? I think it displaced the SAM II instrument; if so then a double disaster. I suspect that this bad joke was forced on JPL by NASA HQ or Bolden himself. No one at JPL would be this stupid. I suspect that the manned mission lobby that runs NASA wanted to get in on all the public interest the Mars has generated.

MRSEN: 07/22/2016 05:42 CDT

Your conjectures are as misinformed as the first time you posted them. JPL is represented on MEPAG at multiple levels including administrative. However, that is redundant, as the selection is in accordance with the Mars policies of MEPAG, the National Academies, as well as NASA, per our reports dated 2015, 2012, 2011, 2009, back to 2001 at minimum. These reports concur on the issue, and are not merely circulated among the science community, but freely downloadable. Your intimation of relevance is thus puzzling, though sadly not rare in this site's comments. As to your proffered answers, they demonstrate that you do not know the relevant questions. You are unaware of just why this platform is not merely suitable but complementary, while your suggestion is not. Yet you see fit to make groundless accusations based on your own conjecture. Jason, if your charter is "We educate," and "seed innovative space technologies," why not enforce your own comment policy at the same time?

DrMorbius: 07/23/2016 09:17 CDT

I am sorry for the tone of my previous posting, but MOXIE just does not make sense to me. If the objective of 2020 is to "search directly for signs of ancient Martian life" I just do not see how MOXIE advances that goal. What am I missing here? Maybe I am misinformed and maybe the 2020 mission had unused space, weight, and electricity for such a demonstration. I sure would like to know what alternative instruments were rejected in favor of MOXIE. Next generation SAM? That would be a shame. In my admittedly uninformed opinion it seems silly to send such an experiment all the way to Mars and then trundle it around when the experiment could be done on Earth or the ISS.

DrMorbius: 07/26/2016 08:16 CDT

I am not a scientist, but just a interested tax payer and would love to have some straight answers to these questions: 1) If the objective of 2020 is to "search directly for signs of ancient Martian life", how does MOXIE help that objective? 2) What instrument did MOXIE displace? 3) If something like SAM II was on 2020 instead of MOXIE would it lessen the need for a sample return mission? 4) Has any design or funding been done for the putative followup mission to pick up 2020's samples?

DrMorbius: 08/01/2016 07:18 CDT

Here is one more question I would like a straight answer on: Incredible as it seems, it appears that Mars 2020 will be LESS capable than MSL of characterizing organic chemicals. 1) Why is that? 2) Is it because MOXIE displaced a second generation SAM instrument? 3) Is 2020's feeble sample-return capacity supposed to be compensation for this decreased capability?

DrMorbius: 08/23/2016 08:24 CDT

So Mars 2020 has the MOXIE demo for a manned mission that will never fly and a sample caching mechanism for a followup mission that will never fly.

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