Mars 2020: The Red Planet’s Next Rover

Another artist’s concept showing NASA’s Mars 2020 rover exploring Mars.  | Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s next Mars rover won’t just explore the Red Planet; it will, the space agency hopes, make it so a little bit of Mars might make it to Earth. Known as Mars 2020, the upcoming rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments on Mars while searching for signs of past microbial life. The robotic traveler will also cache a series of samples that can be returned to Earth with a future mission.

The mission is currently slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July or August 2020, when Earth and Mars are positioned to require the least amount of power for interplanetary travel. It is scheduled to land in February 2021, with an initial mission duration of at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth-days.

The car-sized rover is about 10 feet long (not including the arm), 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall (about 3 meters long, 2.7 meters wide, and 2.2 meters tall). At 2,314 lbs. (1,050 kilograms), it weighs less than a compact car.

If photos and sketches of the Mars 2020 rover look familiar, that’s because the robotic explorer is largely based off its predecessor, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)’s Curiosity rover. 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,” Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said in a statement. “It saves us money, time and most of all, reduces risk.”

Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 will have a rectangular body, six wheels, an arm and hand, cameras and instruments, and a drill for sampling rocks. But the new rover has different goals that require a suite of cutting-edge instruments. Using an X-ray spectrometer and an ultraviolet laser, Mars 2020 will seek out bio-signatures from the past on a microbial scale. 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 m) deep.

“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.”

These upgrades will kick in before the rover ever touches the surface of Mars. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is developing and managing the mission for the space agency, is developing a new landing technology called terrain-relative navigation. As the mission hardware approaches the Martian surface, it will use a computer to compare the landscape with pre-loaded terrain maps, guiding the descending mission to a safe landing site and making corrections on the way down.

A related feature, known as a range trigger, will use location and velocity to determine when to open the spacecraft’s parachute, narrowing the landing ellipse by more than half.

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