The rover that NASA is getting ready to send to Mars in 2020 looks a lot like the Curiosity rover that’s been working on Mars for almost five years – except for that freakishly big robotic arm.
The arm is one of the keys to the rover’s more ambitious mission: to turn up potential traces left behind by ancient life on the Red Planet, and to tuck away samples for eventual return to Earth.
The six-wheeled robot, built on the same type of chassis used for Curiosity, is due for launch in the summer of 2020 toward one of three sites: Northeast Syrtis Major, Jezero Crater or Columbia Hills.
NASA probably won’t decide which site to target for another year or two, but in the meantime, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory put out a new artist’s concept showing the 2020 rover at a Martian work site. The site shown in the picture actually looks a lot like Curiosity’s stomping grounds in Gale Crater.
Like Curiosity, the yet-to-be-named 2020 rover will be powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that could keep it going for years and years. But the 2020 rover kicks things up a notch by carrying an imager that can detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and soil from a distance, and a spectrometer that detects organic compounds using an ultraviolet laser.
The data from such instruments could help scientists go beyond the questions that Curiosity has been able to answer (for example, “Was Mars ever potentially habitable?”) and determine whether microbial life left behind recognizable traces above or below the surface.
The drilling device on the 2020 rover’s monster arm is designed to collect about 30 core samples from the most promising rocks and soil and set them aside in a cache, for return to Earth by a mission yet to be determined.
But wait … there’s more: The European Space Agency is set to send its own rover to the Red Planet in 2020. So are the Chinese. And during the same time frame, SpaceX is planning to send a whole Red Dragon capsule, potentially weighing eight times as much as NASA’s rover.
If Earthlings start quadruple-teaming Mars surface exploration, will we quadruple our rate of progress toward answering the big questions about life on Mars? We’ll find out in 2021.