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article imageNASA's Mars 2020 rover to unlock more Martian secrets

By Robert Myles     Aug 1, 2014 in Science
Washington - NASA’s successor to the Mars Curiosity rover will head to the red planet in 2020 carrying a payload of scientific instruments that will explore Mars as never before.
At NASA’s headquarters Thursday, the seven instruments selected as part of the Mars 2020 mission were announced.
The seven successful candidates were chosen from 58 proposals received from researchers and engineers worldwide. According to NASA, the unprecedented number of applications, twice the usual number for a mission of this kind, indicates the extraordinary interest of the science community in exploring Mars.
Mars 2020 is the follow-on mission to the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity rover, which continues to explore the red planet, having landed on Mars almost two years ago. Earlier this week, Curiosity clocked up a record-breaking 25 miles roaming the surface of the red planet, beating the previous record of robotic rovers held by the Soviet-era Lunokhod.
The Mars 2020 mission, however, will carry more sophisticated, upgraded hardware and new instruments designed to conduct geological assessments of the rover’s landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient life on Mars.
While Mars 2020 will not be a sample-return mission directly, part of its mission will involve identifying and selecting a collection of rock and soil samples that will be stored looking ahead to a later return to Earth by a future mission.
Commenting on the announcement, John Grunsfeld, astronaut, and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said, “The Mars 2020 rover, with these new advanced scientific instruments, including those from our international partners, holds the promise to unlock more mysteries of Mars’ past as revealed in the geological record,” adding, “This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology.”
Part of the Mars 2020 rover’s remit will be to gather data on how future human visitors to Mars might utilize the planet’s natural resources, an essential prerequisite of such a long-term mission if it is not to be reliant on every conceivable requirement being transported from Earth.
Testing the feasibility of technology that would process carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere to produce oxygen will enhance engineers’ understanding of how Mars "home-grown" resources could be used to produce oxygen, not just to enable the first human visitors to Mars to survive, but also, potentially, as a source for rocket fuel.
If future astronauts were able to live off whatever Mars might be able to provide, that would be transformative in planning future manned missions.
Mars 2020 will also help mission planners better understand the threats to astronaut safety posed by Martian dust and dust storms, for example.
“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,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“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.”
Mars 2020’s magnificent seven instruments
The seven selected payload proposals for the Mars 2020 mission are:
1. Mastcam-Z: An advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging and the ability to zoom. Mastcam-Z would also determine mineralogy of the Martian surface and assist with rover operations. The principal investigator is James Bell, Arizona State University in Phoenix.
2. SuperCam: Providing imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. SuperCam will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith—the scree or dust and debris that sometimes cover solid rock — from a distance. The principal investigator is Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (CNES/IRAP), France, is also making a significant contribution to SuperCam.
3. Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL): An X-ray fluorescence spectrometer coupled with a high-res imager to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials. PIXL will provide capabilities that permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before. The principal investigator is Abigail Allwood, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
4. Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC): A spectrometer providing fine-scale imaging that uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds. SHERLOC will be the first UV Raman spectrometer to fly to the surface of Mars and will provide complementary measurements to other mission instruments. The principal investigator is Luther Beegle, JPL.
5. Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE): An exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. The principal investigator is Michael Hecht, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
6. Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA): A set of sensors measuring temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape. The principal investigator is Jose Rodriguez-Manfredi, Centro de Astrobiologia, Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial, Spain.
7. Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX): A ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface. The principal investigator is Svein-Erik Hamran, Forsvarets Forskning Institute, Norway.
An artist concept image of where seven carefully-selected instruments will be located on NASA s Mars...
An artist concept image of where seven carefully-selected instruments will be located on NASA's Mars 2020 rover. The instruments will conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet as never before.
The workhorse for the seven instruments developed from the successful proposals will be a Martian rover similar to Curiosity, which recently completed its first Martian year — 687 days — on the surface of the red planet.
Using the tried and tested technology of a proven landing system and a chassis design similar to that of Curiosity will help ensure mission costs and risks are minimized while still delivering a highly versatile end-product exploration vehicle.
Although Mars 2020 won’t launch for another six years, in the meantime, there’ll be no let-up in missions to the red planet.
Apart from Curiosity, the Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars while NASA’s MAVEN orbiter is scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit September 2014 to study the Martian upper atmosphere.
In March 2016, another NASA Mars lander mission, called InSight, is due to launch. After reaching Mars in September 2016, Insight will spend two years examining the interior of the red planet conducting a series of seismic investigations.
NASA is also participating in the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions.
There’s a momentum building toward humanity’s next tentative step to find out what’s out there. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden put it at Thursday’s announcement:
“Today we take another important step on our journey to Mars. While getting to and landing on Mars is hard, Curiosity was an iconic example of how our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way for humans to pioneer Mars and beyond. Mars exploration will be this generation’s legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans’ journey to the red planet.”
Forty-five years on from the first moon landings, Per ardua ad astra might just be in vogue again.
More about Mars 2020 rover, NASA, mars curiosity rover, Solar system, Red planet
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