Don’t Forget, Curiosity’s Sister Rover is Flying to Mars in 2020

Next summer, NASA will be sending it’s Mars 2020 rover to the Red Planet. In addition to being the second rover to go as part of the Mars Exploration Program, it will be one of eight functioning missions exploring the atmosphere and surface of the planet. These include the recently-arrived InSight lander, the Curiosity rover – Mars 2020s sister-mission – and
the Opportunity rover (which NASA recently lost contact with and retired).

As the launch date gets closer and closer, NASA is busily making all the final preparations for this latest member of the Mars exploration team. In addition to selecting a name (which will be selected from an essay contest), this includes finalizing the spacecraft that will take the rover on its seven-month journey to Mars. Recently, NASA posted images of the spacecraft being inspected at NASA JPL’s Space Simulator Facility (SFF) in Pasadena, California.

The image (close-up shown below) was taken on May 9th, 2019, and shows the spacecraft being loaded into the SSF (aka. the Twenty-Five-Foot Space Simulator). As the name would suggest, the entrance to this testing chamber measures 7.6 m (25 ft) high and 4.6 m (15 ft) wide while the interior measures 26 m (85 ft) in height and 8.2 m (27 ft) in diameter.

Engineers testing the spacecraft that will carry the Mars 2020 rover to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Built in 1961, this chamber is designed for testing spacecraft in space-like conditions, which includes extremely cold temperatures, high radiation, and near-vacuum pressure. Visible in the photo above is the complete Mars 2020 spacecraft, which is similar in configuration to those that delivered the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers as well as the InSight lander.

From top to bottom, this consists of the cruise stage (suspended by cables) that will be responsible for powering and guiding the spacecraft once it is launched to space. Directly below that is the aeroshell that comes in two parts, the white backshell and the black heat shield underneath. These will protect the vehicle during the cruise phase of its mission as well as during its fiery descent into the Martian atmosphere.

What is not visible in this photo is the completed rocket-powered descent stage (aka. “Sky Crane“), which is similar to what was used to land Curiosity in the Gale Crater on Mars in 2012. The same is true of the surrogate rover (a stand-in for the real one that is currently undergoing final assembly in JPL’s High Bay 1 cleanroom), which like the Sky Crane is housed within the aeroshell.

The components that make up the Mars 2020 spacecraft, labelled (left) and unlabeled (right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Like all those that came before, the Mars 2020 spacecraft was tested in the SFF in the same configuration as when it would be traveling to Mars. Once the JPL is finished prepping and testing all of the mission systems, the spacecraft and rover will be integrated and shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where it will launch in July of 2020.

The mission will land on Feb. 18th, 2021, in a location known as Jezero Crater. The primary focus of the rover will be to explore the spectacularly-preserved river delta there, which is evidence of an ancient lake. Much like Curiosity‘s exploration of the Gale Crater, this will allow NASA scientists to investigate Mars’ warmer, wetter past.

As with all missions that are part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the overall goals of the Mars 2020 rover will be fourfold: One, to determine if life ever existed on Mars (or still could today); two, characterize the climate of Mars; three, characterize the geology of Mars; and four, prepare the way for humans to explore Mars.

Orbital picture of the Jezero crater, showing its fossil river delta. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/BROWN UNIVERSITY

To accomplish these tasks, the Mars 2020 rover will be carrying an entirely new suite of instruments. These include a sample-caching system that will collect samples of Martian soil that will be brought back to Earth by a subsequent mission. This may involve having the first crewed mission to the surface pick them up and bring them home during the return trip.

Slowly, we are peeling back the layers of the onion that is Mars. With every successive mission we send, the day gets closer when boots will finally land on the Red Planet. Someday, everything these missions teach us about Mars could go into the creation of a permanent human presence there.

Further Reading: NASA