Mars Rover gets one step closer to 2020 launch

The design leverages features of NASA's Curiosity rover, but adds new science instruments and a sampling system to carry out new mission goals.

0 July 20, 2016

NASA is ready to proceed with the final design and construction for its next Mars rover project. The space agency has competed an extensive review process and the rover has passed a major development milestone.

mars 2020 rover launch

This image is from computer-assisted-design work on the Mars 2020 rover.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars rover is slated to be launched into space in 2020 and arrive at the Red Planet in the beginning of 2021. This space vehicle will be sent to Mars to investigate the planetary environment for signs of past life, collecting soil and rock samples.

The Mars 2020 rover will have two science instruments mounted on its robotic arms to collect samples and explore the area. On the mast,  two science instruments will provide high-resolution imaging and three types of spectroscopy for characterizing rocks and soil from a distance, also helping to determine which rock targets to explore up close.

The space agency has also included an array of sensors on the mast for monitoring the environmental conditions. And a ground-penetrating radar will help assess sub-surface geologic structure.

The vehicle itself has similar features to its one-ton predecessor, Curiosity. It has the same sky crane landing systems but will have the ability to land on more challenging terrain due to two new advancements.

“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,” said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “That shrinks our landing area by nearly half.”

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.

“As it is descending, the spacecraft can tell whether it is headed for one of the unsafe zones and divert to safe ground nearby,” said Chen. “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 six-wheeled rover has a new array of science instruments and enhancements that will allow it to perform tasks with precision and efficiency.

Once a mission receives preliminary approval, it must go through four rigorous technical and programmatic reviews – known as Key Decision Points (KDP) — to proceed through the phases of development prior to launch. Phase A involves concept and requirements definition, Phase B is preliminary design and technology development, Phase C is final design and fabrication, and Phase D is system assembly, testing, and launch. Mars 2020 has just passed its KDP-C milestone.

“Since Mars 2020 is leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, a significant amount of the mission’s heritage components have already been built during Phases A and B,” said George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With the KDP to enter Phase C completed, the project is proceeding with final design and construction of the new systems, as well as the rest of the heritage elements for the mission.”

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