NASA announced today that the Mars 2020 rover has made it past a "major development milestone" in the review process and is ready for the final phases of design and construction. The agency also showed a new image of the rover’s guts, and affirmed plans to launch the robot in the late summer of 2020 with a scheduled Martian arrival in February of 2021.
The milestone that the rover passed is known as "Key Decision Point C," according to George Tahu, the program executive for the mission. Tahu tells The Verge that the 2020 rover can now enter Phase C of development, which involves final design and fabrication, before moving on to Phase D: system assembly, testing, and launch. Tahu expects to transition to Phase D "early next year."
Like Curiosity, but even better
The Mars 2020 rover is a follow-up mission to the Curiosity rover. Though the two rovers look alike, the 2020 rover is tasked with probing Mars for signs of microbial life — something its predecessor didn’t do. The 2020 rover will also collect and store samples, something Curiosity isn’t equipped to do. These samples might someday be returned to Earth for further inspection, though there are no concrete plans to perform that at the moment.
There are seven main instruments on the 2020 rover, all of which make it better-equipped than Curiosity to examine its surroundings. To start, the rover’s main camera (the part that looks like the robot’s head) is getting an upgrade. Mastcam-Z, as it’s known, will be able to take panoramas and stereoscopic images just like Curiosity, but it will also be able to zoom in further than the older rover could. In fact, all of the 2020 rover’s cameras will be better than Curiosity’s, and the robot will even be equipped to record sound and video.
The 2020 rover’s "SuperCam" is like a more powerful version of Curiosity’s "ChemCam." It will fire a laser at Martian rocks and analyze the resulting radiation in order to identify minerals and better understand their elemental composition. This helps scientists back on Earth make more informed decisions about which rocks are the most important.
Then there’s the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, or MOXIE. This instrument will pull carbon dioxide out of the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce pure oxygen. Being able to produce oxygen on Mars would be critical for future missions — it can be used to help keep visiting astronauts alive or turned into rocket fuel. Right next to MOXIE will be the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, or MEDA. It will measure the Martian weather by taking temperature and humidity readings, and it will also make atmospheric measurements to make sure MOXIE is operating properly.
A representation of the 2020 rover from 2014
The 2020 rover will also be equipped with a ground penetrating radar instrument called RIFMAX. It will be able to see half a kilometer into the ground at a resolution of 5-20cm, offering scientists the first look at the subsurface of Mars.
There are a few instruments on the rover’s arm as well. One, called PIXL, will perform x-ray lithochemistry, which helps scientists map the distrobution of elements in Martian rocks. Another instrument called SHERLOC will perform fine-scale mineralogy and be able to detect organics.
Yes, it can still take selfies
After NASA made today’s announcement, the space agency performed a live stream on Facebook Live that ran through the history of the 2020 rover. They offered a deeper look at what the mission will look like, and the hosts also answered a number of questions from the virtual audience. Some topics covered included things like an explanation of how NASA plans to battle the problem of Curiosity’s deteriorating wheels (the 2020 rover’s wheels will be thicker), whether or not the famous "seven minutes of terror" landing sequence will be any different (it won’t, but the rover will use cameras to make the landing even smoother), and whether it will still be able to take selfies (it will). You can watch the entire stream below: