First announced in December 2012, the Mars 2020 rover will finally leave Earth later this summer and travel more than 35 million miles to its new home. Once on the surface, this car-sized science lab (10 feet x 9 feet x 7 feet) will utilize a toolbox of state-of-the-art instruments, cameras and even microphones to pull back the curtain on the mysteries of the red planet.
Below are some highlights of the mission to get you excited ahead of its July 2020 launch.
You can help decide its name
This image, taken in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility's High Bay 1 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in July 2019, shows a close-up of the head of Mars 2020's remote sensing mast. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech [public domain]/Wikimedia)
Between now and midnight on Jan. 27, you can help give the Mars 2020 rover a more fitting title by voting on one of nine finalists. Similar to past rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity, the selections include inspiring names like Endurance, Vision, Fortitude and Courage.
The nine were whittled down from more than 28,000 submissions that NASA received from students in grades K-12 as part of the agency's "Name the Rover" essay contest.
Officials expect to announce the final name — and the student who proposed it — in March.
Not just Curiosity's twin
In a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA's Mars 2020 rover in December 2019. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech [public domain]/Wikimedia)
While the Mars 2020 rover looks nearly identical to NASA's Curiosity rover (and even includes some components leftover from the latter's design), there are some big differences.
In terms of dimensions, Mars 2020 is five inches longer and — due to its different instruments — 280 pounds heavier than Curiosity. In addition to a larger drill for retrieving and storing core samples, Mars 2020 also has 23 cameras (to Curiosity's 17) for improved navigation, scientific analysis and high-definition photos and video. Unlike past rovers, Mars 2020 will also include two microphones to capture sounds during landing and on the surface.
As mobility is absolutely key to the rover's mission, NASA also upgraded its wheels: They're made of thicker, more durable aluminum and with a slightly greater diameter and meatier treads. Its brains received attention as well, with the rover's driving software completely redesigned to allow for much greater independence from Mission Control than possible with Curiosity.
Launch date: July 17, 2020
The Mars 2020 rover will launch from an Atlas V rocket similar to the one above. (Photo: NOAA [public domain]/Flickr)
Taking advantage of a launch window where the orbits of Earth and Mars will only be about 38 million miles apart (the average is generally 140 million miles), NASA has tentatively slated the Mars 2020 rover mission for liftoff on July 17, 2020. Like previous heavy-lift launches, NASA will use an Atlas V 451 and launch the mission from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
One of many
A working prototype of the ESA's Rosalind Franklin rover at the Airbus Defense Space facility in February 2019 in Stevenage, England. (Photo: Dan Kitwood / Staff/Getty Images)
When the Mars 2020 rover launches in July, it will actually be among four international spacecraft destined for the red planet. These include China's Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover, the Russia-European Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover and the United Arab Emirates Hope Mars orbiter. Should all four missions successfully complete their journeys, it would push the number of spacecraft operating on or in orbit around Mars to 12.
7 minutes of terror with a twist: Feb. 18, 2021
While the Mars 2020 rover will follow an entry, descent, landing process similar to that of Curiosity, there are some notable upgrades to help improve both safety and accuracy. One example is a new technology called Range Trigger, which determines the optimal time to pull the spacecraft's parachute in order to more precisely hit its intended landing spot. Another called Terrain-Relative Navigation will collect descent photos, compare it to onboard mapping data and decide whether the intended landing site is safe or should be avoided due to hazardous slopes or rocks.
For the first time ever, the animations shown in the above video will be replaced by actual video of the landing itself. NASA has equipped the descent stage with multiple color cameras to capture every angle of the experience.
"No one has ever seen a parachute opening in the Martian atmosphere, the rover being lowered down to the surface of Mars on a tether from its descent stage, the bridle between the two being cut, and the descent stage flying away after rover touchdown!" they write.
Welcome to Jezero Crater
Believed to have hosted a lake at least twice back when an ancient Mars was warm and wet, Jezero Crater today contains a clearly-visible fan-delta deposit rich in clay minerals and likely deposited by nearby channels.
"The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
Based on satellite imagery captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers believe the lake that once existed in this region was long-lived — making it a prime candidate for the support and evolution of life.
Digging into Mars's ancient history and seeking signs of life
This artist's concept shows a close-up of NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying an outcrop. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech [public domain]/Wikimedia)
With instruments specifically designed to discover bio-signatures, the Mars 2020 rover offers an unprecedented opportunity to determine if Mars once hosted its own lifeforms. Its seven-foot-long articulated arm and large drill will break open rocks and dig into the clay deposits within and around Jezero Crater to examine whether any remnants of life from the ancient past still remain.
"What we're looking for is ancient microbial life - we're talking about billions of years ago on Mars, when the planet was much more Earth-like," deputy mission leader Matt Wallace told AFP.
A collector of specimens
For the first time, a rover on Mars won't just analyze potential specimens, but also scoop and preserve them for future delivery to Earth. NASA estimates that between 20-30 samples will be collected by Mars 2020, placed within hermetically sealed tubes, and strategically left on the surface for later retrieval. A future mission, in partnership with the European Space Agency and presently scheduled for 2026, would include a fetch rover, Mars Ascent Vehicle, and orbiter to help ferry the precious samples our way.
If everything works out as planned, the first Martian samples ever studied by humans firsthand would arrive safely back on Earth around 2031.
The first drone on Mars
Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team attach a thermal film to the exterior of the flight model of the Mars Helicopter. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech [public domain]/Wikimedia)
Aerial drone technology, which in recent years has offered up unique views of our own planet, will soon graces the skies of Mars.
The 4-pound Mars Helicopter Scout, mounted on the underside of the rover, will perform a planned five flights over the course of its 30-day test mission. Each foray into the Martian atmosphere is expected to last no more than three minutes, at altitudes from 3 meters to 10 meters and distances up to 600 meters (2,000 feet). Equipped with cameras and radiation-resistant systems designed to survive the harsh Martian environment, this scout drone is meant to be a technology demonstration for larger, more-advanced versions for future missions.
It's expected that NASA will give the drone its first flight one to two months after landing.
New tests for future human exploration
This calibration target for Mars 2020's Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument includes five samples of spacesuit material, the first to ever be flown to the Red Planet. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech [public domain]/Wikimedia)
Should humans ever step foot on Mars, one of the biggest keys to long-term survival is the production of oxygen from the red planet's carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere (96% of the gas in Mars' atmosphere).
Included on the Mars 2020 rover is an instrument called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) designed to do exactly that. The shoebox-sized device, which would need to be scaled up about 100 times for humans, is expected to produce about 10 grams of oxygen per hour. If successful, the production of oxygen on Mars would also enable the creation of liquid oxygen propellant for astronauts to use for return trips to Earth.
In addition to MOXIE, NASA researchers are also including five samples of spacesuit material. By studying how these samples degrade in the Martian atmosphere, the team hopes to craft a spacesuit that can better protect and survive the harsh surface environment.
A decade (or more) of exploration?
While NASA expects the Mars 2020 rover to fully survive and complete its three-year mission (about the length of 1.5 years on Mars), precedence gives hope that it will go on exploring for much longer. The rover contains the same radioisotope power system (utilizing 10.6 pounds of plutonium dioxide) as Curiosity, which, as of Jan. 24, has spent 2,727 days exploring the surface of Mars.
According to NASA, the operational lifetime of the Mars 2020 power system is 14 years. Barring any other critical breakdowns, we should expect this ambassador of Earth to uncover more of the red planet's secrets well into the 2030s.