NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to land on the red planet in February 2021, and when it does, it will touch down in Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient lake that existed 3.5 billion years ago. The next generation rover, which will get an official name soon, will build on the success of the robotic explorers who came before it by collecting the first samples of Mars for a future return to Earth.
But the new rover will also lay the groundwork for future human exploration by testing new technologies.
The Mars 2020 rover, which looks nearly identical to the Curiosity rover that landed in 2012, will begin its mission exploring Jezero Crater. The six-wheeled rover is equipped with a suite of instruments designed to help it look for signs of life called biosignatures.
NASA believes that Mars was habitable sometime in its past. The inhospitable desert-like planet we see today was not always the case. Mars’ once ample atmosphere eroded over time, stripped away by solar particles, resulting in the thin atmosphere we see today.
But so far, we haven’t been able to detect any real signs of ancient life yet. The rover’s team thinks that its specialized suite of instruments will change that.
The twin Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) were tasked with finding evidence of water, and they were successful right out of the gate. The Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity) was designed to understand habitability and if the conditions were right for life. Now, the Mars 2020 rover will take that one step further and search for actual signs of life.
Artist rendition depicting the early Martian environment (right) versus the Mars we see today (left). Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
The 2020 rover will do so by drilling into its surroundings and extracting samples that will be returned to Earth at a later time. Returning the samples is a challenge that NASA is already starting to tackle. The agency estimates that the earliest it can send a mission to fetch the rover’s samples would be some time around 2026 or 2027.
In the meantime, 2020 will be busy sciencing the heck out of Mars to search for microbial life as well as testing out technologies that future human missions will rely on.
Here’s how four of those instruments will work.
Terrain Relative Navigation
Landing on Mars is tricky. To date, only about half of the missions attempted have successfully touched down on the red planet. The 2020 rover will be equipped with a specialized feature to help it avoid any potential hazards in the landing zone.
Past missions, like Curiosity, needed a landing spot that was free of debris (like rocks, boulders, etc). But 2020 will be able to navigate around them. That’s because the rover is equipped with a unique lander vision system. This system take pictures during the parachute descent stage. It then compares those images to an onboard map.
A view of how the terrain-relative navigation works. Credit: NASA/JPL_Caltech
The computer matches the map (which is created from orbital imagery), to create a guide that can identify landmarks such as craters and mountains.
The system then ranks landing sites based on safety, and can even identify a hazard. The Mars 2020 mission will be the first to test out this new system. If all goes well, it will be used on future missions, including human missions to Mars and even the moon.
Astronauts traveling to Mars will need oxygen to breathe and to use as rocket fuel. However, hauling it with the other cargo is expensive and not a viable solution. The Mars 2020 rover is equipped with an instrument on called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE for short).
MOXIE will convert carbon dioxide (a gas that’s abundant on Mars) into the oxygen, which astronauts can use as needed. 2020 is equipped with a small, prototype version of the equipment needed for future human missions.
The team will study how the experiment performs and use that data to scale up the technology to use on subsequent missions. But how will it work?
MOXIE can only run for a few hours at a time, and only about once a month. (That’s because the system uses a full day’s worth of rover power each time it runs.) Humans use about 20 grams per hour of oxygen and MOXIE can only produce about half of that.
In order to support a crew of 4-6 astronauts and be able to generate propellant, future iterations of MOXIE will need to produce about 200 times that amount of oxygen.
NASA is trying to better understand dust storms and other Martian weather phenomenon. Credit: NASA
Day and nighttime temperatures on Mars can fluctuate by as much as 80 or 90 degrees. MEDA will help scientists track those changes as well as measure radiation from the surface, to understand how much the sun heats the air. This solar heating causes changes in the Martian wind and can help scientists better understand the Martian water cycle.
Understanding the current weather patterns and environment could also lead to a better understanding of Mars’s history and shed light on how it transitioned from a warm, habitable planet into the dusty, cold desert we see today.
The Mars 2020 rover will be equipped with a ground-penetrating radar instrument: Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX.
The Korolev crater on Mars as seen by Mars Express. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
Scientists hope that RIMAX will help them study the history of Jezero Crater by peering below the surface. With the instrument’s help, scientists will be able to look at subsurface rock and ice. To date, only orbital observations have been made of the Martian polar ice, but this will increase our understanding of the planet’s inner geology.
The Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to launch in July of 2020, and will land on the Martian surface six months later. If all goes according to plan, we may finally be able to answer the question of whether or not Mars once hosted life.