NASA Announces Payload for Mars 2020 Rover Mission

Mars 2020 Rover sketch.

Mars 2020 Rover sketch.

by Nur Hussein, staff  writer

NASA released information on the new Mars Rover 2020 mission yesterday, detailing the payload of the craft they’re sending to the red planet by the end of this decade.

The Mars 2020 rover’s chassis will be based on the design of the Curiosity rover currently in operation on Mars, but with a lot of upgraded hardware. The mission of the new rover is an expanded geological survey of the planet to discover how potential habitable the Martian environment is, and the continuing search for any signs of life on our neighboring planet. This survey is another step in NASA’s plan to eventually send a manned mission to Mars.

In January, engineers and scientists worldwide submitted 58 proposals for instruments to be carried by the Mars 2020 rover. After a careful selection process, NASA chose seven to be built and installed onto the rover. The goal is to identify what we can extract from the Martian environment that can help sustain life, so that  we can prepare for an eventual Mars mission. Paramount is how oxygen will be generated for respiration and as oxidizers for rocket fuel.

Mars 2020 Rover proposed instrument assembly.

Mars 2020 Rover proposed instrument assembly.

The construction of the proposed instruments alone will cost an estimated $130 million. The geological and atmospheric surveys that the rover will perform is expected to help us understand both the present and the past of Mar’s geological landscape. The rover is also designed to store rock and soil samples for future retrieval by a manned mission.

Finding out what resources we can extract from the environment will also help reduce the amount of material we need to carry to Mars for future missions. Part of the technology to do this will be tested on the new rover. The rover chassis configuration will be the same as Curiosity’s, building on the success of the previous mission, and using a proven design to minimize the cost and risk involved in this long-term mission.

The seven instrument proposals accepted (ordered by increasing cuteness of their acronyms)  are:

  1. Mastcam-Z – an advanced camera system with panaromic view, zoom and stereoscopic vision, from Arizona State University. The cameras are based on Curiosity’s current equipment, but with upgraded features. The zoom in particular is hoped to be useful for target selection and rover navigation. James Bell, principal investigator for the project has said, ““These cameras will be the main eyes of NASA’s next rover.”
  2. SuperCam – an imaging sensor that will study chemical compounds and minerals, from a collaboration between Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (CNES/IRAP) in France. SuperCam has a laser in its arsenal to determine the elemental composition of any compound from 20 feet away, using a technology developed by Los Alamos called Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS).
  3. MEDA or Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer – a set of sensors to measure atmospheric conditions, from Centro de Astrobiologia, Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial, Spain. The sensors will measure temperature, wind speed, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape. It will also measure solar radiation cycles.
  4. RIMFAX or Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration – a radar system that will plow into the ground and provide subsurface structure data, from the Forsvarets Forskning Institute, Norway.
  5. PIXL or Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry – an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and hi-res imager for analysing elemental composition of the surface of Mars, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. PIXL is proposed to be mounted on the arm of the rover, and is designed to be adaptive; measurement sequences are optimized on the fly based on analysis of onboard data.
  6. MOXIE or The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment – an experiment to try and produce oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Martian atmosphere comprises about 96% carbon dioxide, and the MOXIE device can turn it into pure oxygen and carbon monoxide. Principal investigator Michael Mecht said, “This is essentially a fuel cell run in reverse.” Data from this experiment will help scientists design what will essentially be an oxygen factory on Mars.
  7. SHERLOC or Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals – another spectrometer, but one equipped with a UV laser for detecting organic compounds and other minerals, also from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This is the first time we are sending a Raman spectrometer to the Martian surface.
Mars 2020 Rover MOXIE design.

Mars 2020 Rover MOXIE design.

It is the goal of the Mars 2020 mission to provide valuable insight on the environment of Mars; geological history, evidence of life and data for preparing a manned landing. Let’s hope this mission will be as much of a success as Curiosity, which has currently completed a Martian year (687 Earth days) on the surface of the red planet.

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About Nur Hussein

Nur is a tinkerer of programmable things, an apprentice in an ancient order of technomages. He enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, and Lego in his spare time. His favourite authors are Asimov and Tolkien. He also loves Celtic and American folk music. You can follow him on twitter: @nurhussein

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