If all goes according to plan, NASA will have a shiny new rover scouring the surface of Mars sometime in early 2021.
The space agency recently released new concept art of its Mars 2020 rover, with a goal to launch the payload aboard an Atlas V rocket in July or August 2020.
"The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself," NASA officials wrote in a statement. "The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils, and set them aside on the surface of Mars. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth."
Modeled after NASA's successful Curiosity rover, which continues to perform scientific missions on Mars since landing in August 2012, the Mars 2020 features some notable upgrades. In addition to its imposing drill, the vehicle includes larger, more capable wheels for traversing Mars' sandy surface, a microphone to enable engineers to both hear Mars' environment and diagnose potential instrument issues, and a new long-range mobility system that will allow it to travel 3 to 12 miles each day.
In comparison, Curiosity was designed to move up to only 660 feet per day and has traveled less than 10 miles in five years.
Like Curiosity, the new rover will take advantage of the innovative "sky-crane maneuver," which allows something the size of a small SUV (Curiosity measures nearly 10 feet long) to safely descend to the planet's surface. Unlike previous missions, the Mars 2020 landing will include technologies like Terrain-Relative Navigation. This will enable the spacecraft to more accurately hit its designated landing spot by referencing in real time photos of the approaching terrain below with digital maps included in its memory.
While engineers work on building the Mars 2020 rover, NASA scientists are narrowing down the region on the red planet to send it to. Earlier this year, the agency shortlisted three sites for further evaluation.
"The three potential landing sites for NASA's next Mars rover include Northeast Syrtis (a very ancient portion of Mars' surface), Jezero crater (once home to an ancient Martian lake), and Columbia Hills (potentially home to an ancient hot spring, explored by NASA's Spirit rover)," the officials shared.
Once on the planet, the Mars 2020 rover has a life expectancy of one Martian year, which is equal to 669 Earth days. With its predecessors Opportunity and Curiosity still going strong well after their expiration dates (13 years and 5 years respectively), there's every reason to believe the newest rover will still be rolling around well into the 2030s.
For a rover-eye view of the world, check out the 360-degree video produced by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory below. The interactive scenes were captured aboard the agency's "Scarecrow" test mobility double for the Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers.