NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has been trundling around the Red Planet for almost two years now, so the space agency is looking for a trade in. At a press conference in Washington DC, it announced the seven instruments selected to fly on the Mars 2020 rover mission that is scheduled to launch in July or August 2020 with a landing set for February 2021 at a yet to be determined site. The instruments were selected out of 58 proposals from US and international scientists and engineers, and represent a development cost of US$130 million.
The Mars 2020 rover uses the same basic design and engineering as Curiosity, which is currently exploring the Gale Crater region of Mars. While it will come with some improvements – such as newly designed wheels – the launch system, cruise stage, aeroshell, and Skycrane landing system will be almost identical to that used on its predecessor. Like Curiosity, the new rover’s power source will be a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) using the heat from the natural decay of plugs of plutonium-238 nuclear fuel.
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The purpose of the mission is to study the geology of Mars, to seek out signs of ancient life, and conduct experiments related to the habitability of Mars for future manned expeditions. In addition, Mars 2020 will collect and store rock and soil samples in a container similar to one developed by the ESA, to be returned to Earth by a later mission.
The seven new instruments
Mastcam-Z: An advanced camera system, the Mastcam-Z is a new mast-mounted camera for the Mars 2020 rover that has zoom, panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capabilities. It’s used for mineralogical surveys and general imaging to aid rover operations. The zoom capability is a considerable advance because the current camera on Curiosity relies on two fixed-focus lenses and has great difficulty creating stereoscopic images.
SuperCam: The Super-Cam is an imaging device for studying chemical composition and mineralogy. It’s designed to detect organic materials in rocks and regolith at a distance.
Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL): This is an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, which includes a high-resolution imager to study the fine-scale composition of surface materials for detailed detection and analysis. Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, it can focus its x-rays on a surface sample and complete an analysis within minutes or even seconds while its imager records visual details to aid mineral identification.
Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC): SHERLOC is a fine-scale spectrometer that uses an ultraviolet laser for mineralogical studies and detecting organic compounds. According to NASA, it’s the first UV Raman spectrometer (named after the Raman scattering effect used) sent to the Martian surface.
"This instrument uses two distinct detection strategies," says principal investigator, Luther Beegle of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It can detect an important class of carbon molecules with high sensitivity, and it also identifies minerals that provide information about ancient aqueous environments."
Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE): This is an experiment from MIT that will attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere. NASA hopes that this could one day lead to a way to provide explorers with oxygen without the expense of carting it from Earth.
Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA): A weather station to measure temperature, wind direction and velocity, barometric pressure and humidity, as well as the size and shape of dust particles in the air.
Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX): Mounted under the rover’s belly, this is a centimeter-scale ground-penetrating radar for studying subsurface features.
NASA says that Mars 2020 will spend at least one Martian year or two Earth years studying the Red Planet. The space agency hopes that data sent back by the robotic explorer will provide insights into the potential hazards from Martian dust as well as the prospect of manufacturing oxygen out of atmospheric carbon dioxide for breathing and rocket propulsion, which would greatly reduce the cost of sending people to Mars.
"The 2020 rover will help answer questions about the Martian environment that astronauts will face and test technologies they need before landing on, exploring and returning from the Red Planet," says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. "Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry. Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible."
The press conference introducing the new instrument suite for the Mars 2020 can be viewed below.