It’s been nearly eight years since Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral, and the aging rover should soon have company on the Red Planet. The Mars 2020 rover, currently being assembled at JPL, has met a major launch milestone and is now standing on its own six wheels. NASA celebrated the milestone with a time-lapse video of the rover’s assembly and a discussion of the vehicle.
The Mars 2020 rover is slightly larger and heavier than Curiosity, which was itself significantly larger and more capable than Spirit or Opportunity. The Mars 2020 Rover is 2,315 pounds to Curiosity’s 1,982 pounds. Curiosity is 9.5 feet long, 8.9 feet wide, and 7.2 feet tall, while Mars 2020 is 9.8 feet long, 8.9 feet wide, and 7.2 feet tall. Some of Curiosity’s systems and functions have been carried over for Mars 2020, including the entirety of its landing system (Mars 2020 will use the same rocket-powered hover crane that Curiosity deployed). Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 will use an RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) for power generation.
The Mars 2020 mission will carry a number of scientific instruments, including an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (for fine-scaled surface composition analysis), a ground-penetrating radar that can detect underground water ice and any liquid brine that may still exist at depths of up to 10m (33 feet), a suite of sensors for measuring Martian temperature, wind speed, pressure, relative humidity, and an onboard experiment intended to test the production of oxygen on Mars using CO2 gathered on the Red Planet itself. In theory, this technique could be scaled up to produce oxygen for human habitation in future missions, or to produce rocket fuel for return trips. Scientists want to test the process at the small scale to see how it works.
Mars 2020 will also carry upgraded versions of some of the cameras that Curiosity fields today, including its SuperCam (upgraded version of Curiosity’s ChemCam). It even has a small detachable drone, the Mars Helicopter Scout, that carries no technology other than cameras, but it’s a proof of concept technology demo that will show if small craft can effectively scout Mars. One wonders if it’s capable of holding still long enough to take a photo, thereby giving us the first selfie a combined rover-drone will be capable of shooting of itself while standing (rolling) on another planet.
If all goes well, you’ll hopefully see that as a headline sometime in 2021 or 2022.
Unlike Curiosity, Mars 2020 is explicitly being treated as a precursor mission towards eventual manned human exploration. The Mars 2020 rover is supposed to set aside of a cache of material that humans might one day return to gather. It will deploy new precision landing technology and measure the hazard levels posed by Martian dusts in various contexts. Mars is capable of suffering global sandstorms, some of which have killed rovers before. Sandstorm hazards are a very real risk that future astronauts will need to deal with.
Mars 2020 will land in Jezero Crater to explore our neighbor. We dove into why Jezero was selected in an article last year: It’s a good spot for exploring how Mars changed as it dried, with geological features that appear to straddle the divide between the Noachian and Hesperian periods of Mars’ geologic history. The Noachian is the older and wetter period on Mars, where major impact events shaped the world and water may have flowed freely. Mars dried as it entered and progressed through the Hesperian. Volcanism became the dominant force shaping the planet. The Noachian and Hesperian periods on Mars roughly correspond to the Hadean and Achean eons on Earth.
Feature image from NASA / JPL
- A Vanished Martian Oasis Holds Clues to How the Red Planet Dried Out
- NASA Installs SuperCam Instrument on Mars 2020 Rover
- NASA Installs Wheels on Mars 2020 Rover