NASA Mars Rover

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NASA’s Next Mars Rover

Artist’s conceptual image of the 2020 rover. (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Should all go according to plan, NASA will launch its next Martian rover in July 2020. The robotic probe is still under construction, but early signs are that the next-gen rover will be equipped with an impressive assortment of high-tech gadgets.

The rover is currently under construction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and doesn’t have a name yet aside from “Mars 2020.” Like its predecessors, the future rover will scour the Red Planet for signs of previous habitability, and conduct scientific analyses of Mars’ geology, atmosphere, and other natural phenomena. But unlike those rovers that came before it, this one has a few more tricks up its metallic sleeve.

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As NASA announced earlier this week, the probe will be equipped with no less than 23 different cameras. That’s 13 more than Spirit and Opportunity, and six more than Curiosity. Of its 23 cameras, nine will be dedicated to engineering tasks, seven to science, and another seven for tracking the probe’s entry, descent, and landing. These “eyes” will allow the probe to create sweeping panoramas, uncover obstacles, and study Mars in exquisite detail. Importantly, these cameras will work in tandem with the many scientific instruments onboard.

Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech

During its descent, cameras will snap photos of the parachute unfurling and as it slowly drifts down onto the planet’s red-stained surface. Once it’s out-and-about, an internal camera will peer closely at rock samples. When it’s done playing lab technician, the robot will “cache” the samples and deposit them onto the rocky surface for a future mission to collect (yes, this robot is going to be a litterbug).

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The cameras will also provide more color and 3D imaging than previous missions. Whereas Curiosity had the Mastcam, the 2020 version will feature the Mastcam-z, where the “z” stands for “zoom.” The cameras will also be able to support more stereoscopic images, which are good for scanning geological features, assessing distance, and hunting for the next exploration site from far away.

The Navcams and Hazcams on the previous rovers, used for navigating and avoiding hazards, produced 1-megapixel digital images in black and white. The 2020 versions of these cameras will acquire high-rez 20-megapixel images in full color (hallelujah!). These cameras will also be able to reduce motion blurs, which means the robot will be able to snap images while zipping across the Martian surface. And because the lenses will be wider, the 2020 rover will be able to capture a broader view of the landscape.

“Our previous Navcams would snap multiple pictures and stitch them together,” said JPL’s Colin McKinney in an agency release. “With the wider field of view, we get the same perspective in one shot.”

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Now, you might be thinking that full color, 3D-images filmed in high-resolution are not a big deal, but it is a big deal for a robot located 34 million miles away. With all these new gadgets comes troves of data, which then have to be beamed back towards Earth. This added equipment represents a frustrating limiting factor.

To address this, the cameras onboard the 2020 rover will compress the data (which Curiosity does as well), but another solution will be to use orbiting spacecraft as data relays. This idea was first tested during the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, where NASA used its Mars Odyssey orbiter as an interplanetary relay station. Who says we’re not living in the future?

“We were expecting to do that mission on just tens of megabits each Mars day, or sol,” said mission scientist Justin Maki. “When we got that first Odyssey overflight, and we had about 100 megabits per sol, we realized it was a whole new ballgame.” By “sol,” Maki is referring to a single Martian day, which is 24 hours and 39 minutes long. For the 2020 mission, NASA is planning to use spacecraft already in Martian orbit, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter.

Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech

And that’s just the cameras. Other proposed scientific instruments include an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to examine Martian surface materials, a radar imager, a microphone, an ultraviolet spectrometer, and even a Mars Helicopter Scout (HMS)—a two pound solar powered drone that would buzz above the rover, helping it to select future exploration targets.

The 2020 rover could be accompanied by this aerial drone, called the Mars Helicopter Scout (HMS). (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

In addition, the new rover will feature wheels that are more durable (Curiosity’s are in bad shape), have better traction, and have a performance-maximizing shape. The 2020 rover will also try to produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon-dioxide atmosphere, which could establish an important precedent for the Red Planet’s first colonists.

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As to where the rover will land, that’s still not known. NASA has released a shortlist of landing sites, including Northeast Syrtis (an area once warmed by volcanic activity), the Jezero Crater (the remnant of a Martian lake), and Columbia Hills, which NASA’s Spirit lander explored during the early-to-mid 2000s.

Regardless of the site chosen, the next mission to Mars is going to be absolutely brilliant.

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