Saturday, July 16, 2016

NASA says ready to build Mars 2020 rover

U.S. space agency NASA said Friday it's ready to begin final design and construction of its next Mars rover, which is set to look for evidence of past life on the Red Planet.

The Mars 2020 rover has gone through "an extensive review process" and passed "a major development milestone," NASA said in a statement.

If everything goes smoothly, the six-wheeled robot will be launched in summer of 2020, arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021, and then begin to investigate a region where the ancient environment may have been favorable for microbial life, it said.

Throughout its investigation, the rover will collect samples of soil and rock, and cache them on the surface for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

"The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth," said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

"This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA's Journey to Mars -- to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet."

To reduce risk and provide cost savings, the 2020 rover will look much like its six-wheeled, one-ton predecessor, Curiosity, but with an array of new science instruments and enhancements to explore Mars as never before, NASA said.

For example, the rover will conduct the first investigation into the usability and availability of Martian resources, including oxygen, in preparation for human missions.

Mars 2020 will carry an entirely new subsystem to collect and prepare Martian rocks and soil samples that includes a coring drill on its arm and a rack of sample tubes.

About 30 of these sample tubes will be deposited at select locations for return on a potential future sample-retrieval mission.

In laboratories on Earth, specimens from Mars could be analyzed for evidence of past life on Mars and possible health hazards for future human missions.

The rover will also carry two science instruments on its robotic arm that will search for signs of past life and determine where to collect samples by analyzing the chemical, mineral, physical and organic characteristics of Martian rocks.

On the rover's 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.

A suite of sensors on the mast and deck will monitor weather conditions and the dust environment, while a ground-penetrating radar will assess sub-surface geologic structure.

The Mars 2020 rover will use the same sky crane landing system as Curiosity, but will have the ability to land in more challenging terrain with two enhancements, making more rugged sites eligible as safe landing candidates.

"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). "That shrinks our landing area by nearly half."

  • There also will be a suite of cameras and a microphone that will capture the never-before-seen or heard imagery and sounds of the entry, descent and landing sequence, said NASA.

  • Microphones have flown on previous missions to Mars, including NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008, but never have actually been used on the surface of the Red Planet.

"This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time, and it could also provide useful engineering information," said Mars 2020 Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace, also of JPL.

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