Mars 2020 Rover: The search for life on Mars

NASA announced this week that the next Martian rover has passed its final development milestone. The design will be finalized and construction begun with a view to launching the rover in the summer of 2020 and landing on Mars in February 2021.

The 2020 rover is not radically different in appearance from its predecessor Curiosity. The chassis will be inches in height width and length bigger than Curiosity at ten feet long, nine feet wide and seven feet tall. The same company which built the chassis for Curiosity will build the new one.

The rover will use the same sky crane system that put Curiosity on the surface safely with two significant improvements which will enable the JPL team to put the rover closer to areas of interest.

Quoting NASA:

“Terrain-relative navigation on the new rover will use onboard analysis of downward-looking images taken during descent, matching them to a map that indicates zones designated unsafe for landing.”

The rover’s on board computer will be analyzing potential landing sites as its descending. A second enhancement enables the rover to avoid potentially unsafe areas.

Allen Chen, NASA’s lead for the rover’s descent team elaborates.

“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. That shrinks our landing area by nearly half.”

“As it is descending, the spacecraft can tell whether it is headed for one of the unsafe zones and divert to safe ground nearby. 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.”

The rover will also capture the sights and sounds of landing on the surface of Mars, including pictures of its parachute opening, something never seen before.

The real difference between the Mars 2020 Rover and Curiosity lies in its mission. The new rover is going to Mars to look for signs of past life.

To do that the rover will carry seven instruments to Mars to conduct its search:

  1. MASTCAM-Z:

Reported to be an upgraded version of Curiosity’s camera and include a zoom feature.

  1. MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer):

Several sensors which will measure the temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape at whatever particular site the rover is at.

  1. MOXIE (Mas Oxygen ISRU Experiment):

One of the more intriguing and potentially significant experiments on the rover. The MOXIE unit will attempt to create oxygen using electricity to breakdown carbon dioxide. If successful, larger MOXIE units could be built for use on Mats to supply astronauts and rocket fuel.

  1. PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry): 

Mounted at the end of the robotic arm, PIXL is an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer which also contains a high resolution imager able to determine the elemental composition of surface materials. It is a “search-for-life” tool.

  1. RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration):

A ground-penetrating radar capable of “seeing” 5.6 inches into the ground. Will help determine the depth of the regolith and detect subsurface layers, particularly in the areas targeted for sample extraction.

  1. SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals): 

A spectrometer which will analyze samples illuminated by an ultraviolet laser positioned on the rover’s arm. The spectrometer will be looking for two characteristics. First, florescence from carbon rings of carbon atoms. The second Raman scattering, test used to identify molecules. Both are “search for life” tools.

  1. SUPERCAM:

An instrument illuminating samples with a laser from up to twenty feet away and performing spectroscopy on the resulting ionized elements.

Outwardly the Mars 202 rover is similar to Curiosity. Some of the instruments are upgraded versions of those found on Curiosity. Mars Rover 2020 is an incremental improvement of Curiosity but a significant improvement nonetheless.

It does seem though that the steps we are taking are small. It would be nice to hear a timeline from NASA, a timeline into the future that links these steps with a plan to go to and stay on Mars.

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