NASA Goes With Atlas V To Launch Mars 2020 Rover

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has accomplished some truly spectacular things in the past few decades. Officially launched in 1992, this program has been focused on three major goals: characterizing the climate and geology of Mars, looking for signs of past life, and preparing the way for human crews to explore the planet.

And in the coming years, the Mars 2020 rover will be deployed to the Red Planet and become the latest in a long line of robotic rovers sent to the surface. In a recent press release, NASA announced that it has awarded the launch services contract for the mission to United Launch Alliance (ULA) – the makers of the Atlas V rocket.

The mission is scheduled to launch in July of 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, at a point when Earth and Mars are at opposition. At this time, the planets will be on the same side of the Sun and making their closest approach to each other in four years, being just 62.1 million km (38.6 million miles) part.

The design of NASA's Mars 2020 rover leverages many successful features of the agency's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, but it adds new science instruments and a sampling system to carry out the new goals for the 2020 mission. Credits: NASA
The design of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover combines proven features with some new science instruments and a sampling system. Credits: NASA

Following in the footsteps of the Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit rovers, the goal of Mars 2020 mission is to  determine the habitability of the Martian environment and search for signs of ancient Martian life. This will include taking samples of soil and rock to learn more about Mars’ “watery past”.

But whereas these and other members of the Mars Exploration Program were searching for evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface and a denser atmosphere (i.e. signs that life could have existed), the Mars 2020 mission will attempt to find actual evidence of ancient microbial life.

The design of the rover also incorporates several successful features of Curiosity. For instance, the entire landing system (which incorporates a sky crane and heat shield) and the rover’s chassis have been recreated using leftover parts that were originally intended for Curiosity.

There’s also the rover’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator – i.e. the nuclear motor – which was also originally intended as a backup part for Curiosity. But it will also have several upgraded instrument on board that allow for a new guidance and control technique. Known as “Terrain Relative Navigation”, this new landing method allows for greater maneuverability during descent.

Artist's impression of the Mars 2020 with its sky crane landing system deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020, with its sky crane landing system deployed. Credit: NASA/Mars Science Laboratory

Another new feature is the rover’s drill system, which will collect core samples and store them in sealed tubes. These tubes will then be left in a “cache” on the surface, where they will be retrieved by future missions and brought back to Earth – which will constitute the first sample-return mission from the Red Planet.

In this respect, Mars 2020 will help pave the way for a crewed mission to the Red Planet, which NASA hopes to mount sometime in the 2030s. The probe will also conduct numerous studies designed to improve landing techniques and assess the planet’s natural resources and hazards, as well as coming up with methods to allow astronauts to live off the environment.

In terms of hazards, the probe will be looking at Martian weather patterns, dust storms, and other potential environmental conditions that will affect human astronauts living and working on the surface. It will also test out a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying sources of subsurface water (as a source of drinking water, oxygen, and hydrogen fuel).

As NASA stated in their press release, the Mars 2020 mission will “offer opportunities to deploy new capabilities developed through investments by NASA’s Space Technology Program and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, as well as contributions from international partners.”

The microphone for the upcoming Mars mission will be attached to the SuperCam, seen here in this illustration zapping a rock with its laser. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustration of the Mars 2020 mission zapping a rock with its laser. Credit: NASA/JPL-

They also emphasized the opportunities to learn ho future human explorers could rely on in-situ resource utilization as a way of reducing the amount of materials needed to be shipped – which will not only cut down on launch costs but ensure that future missions to the planet are more self-reliant.

The total cost for NASA to launch Mars 2020 is approximately $243 million. This assessment includes the cost of launch services, processing costs for the spacecraft and its power source, launch vehicle integration and tracking, data and telemetry support.

The use of spare parts has also meant reduced expenditure on the overall mission. In total, the Mars 2020 rover and its launch will cost and estimated $2.1 billion USD, which represents a significant savings over previous missions like the Mars Science Laboratory – which cost a total of $2.5 billion USD.

Between now and 2020, NASA also intends to launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander mission, which is currently targeted for 2018. This and the Mars 2020 rover will be the latest in a long line of orbiters, rovers and landers that are seeking to unlock the mysteries of the Red Planet and prepare it for human visitors!

Further Reading: NASA, Mars 2020 Rover

Time For NASA To Double Down On Journey To Mars

Since the Authorization Act of 2010, NASA has been pushing ahead with the goal of sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. The latter part of this goal has been the subject of much attention in recent years, and for good reason. Sending crewed missions to the Red Planet would be the single-greatest initiative undertaken since the Apollo era, and the rewards equally great.

However, with the scheduled date for a mission approaching, and the upcoming presidential election, NASA is finding itself under pressure to show that they are making headway. Despite progress being made with both the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, there are lingering issues which need to be worked out before NASA can mount its historic mission to Mars.

One of the biggest issues is that of assigned launched missions that will ensure that the SLS is tested many times before a crewed mission to Mars is mounted. So far, NASA has produced some general plans as part of it’s “Journey to Mars“, an important part of which is the use of the SLS and Orion spacecraft to send a crew beyond low-Earth orbit and explore a near-Earth asteroid by 2025.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

This plan is not only intended to provide their astronauts with experience working beyond LEO, but to test the SLS and Orion’s capabilities, not to mention some vital systems – such as Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which will be used to send cargo missions to Mars. Another major step is  Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first planned flight of the SLS and the second uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft (which will take place on September 30th, 2018).

However, beyond this, NASA has only one other mission on the books, which is Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2). This mission will involve the crew performing a practice flyby of a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, and which is scheduled for launch in 2023. This will be the first crewed test of the Orion spacecraft, and also the first time American astronauts have left low-Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

While significant, these mission remain the only two assigned flights for the SLS and Orion. Beyond these, dozens more have been proposed as part of NASA’s three phase plan to reach Mars. For instance, between 2018 and the 2030s, NASA would be responsible for launching a total of 32 missions in order to send the necessary hardware to near-Mars space before making crewed landings on Phobos and then to Mars.

In accordance with the “Evolvable Mars Campaign” – which was presented last year by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) – Phase One (the “Earth Reliant” phase) of this plan would involve two launches in 2028, which would be responsible for transporting a habitation module, an SEP module, and a exploration vehicle to cis-lunar space.

This would be followed by two SLS flights in 2029, bringing the Trans-Earth Injection (TEI) stage to cis-lunar space, followed by a crew to perform the final checks on the Phobos Hab. By 2030, Phase Two (known as the “Proving Ground” phase) would begin with the last elements – the Earth Orbit Insertion (EOI) stage and taxi elements – being launched to cis-lunar orbit, and then all the equipment being sent to near-Mars space for pre-deployment.

By 2031, two more SLS missions would take place, where a Martian Hab would be launched, followed in 2032 by the launches of the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) and Trans-Mars Injection (TMI) stages. By 2033, Phase Three (the “Earth Independent” phase) would begin, where the Phobos crew would be transported to the Transit Hab, followed by the final crewed mission to the Martian surface.

Accomplishing all of this would require that NASA commit to making regular launches over the next few years. Such was the feeling of Bill Gerstenmaier – NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations – who recently indicated that NASA will need to mount launches at least once a year to establish a “launch cadence” with the SLS.

Mission proposals of this kind were also discussed at the recent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting – which meets annually to discuss matters relating to NASA’s safety performance. During the course of the meeting, Bill Hill – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) – provided an overview of the latest developments in NASA’s planned mission.

The many faces of Mars inner moon, Phobos (Credit: NASA)
The many faces of Mars inner moon, Phobos. Credit: NASA

By and large, the meeting focused on possible concepts for the Mars mission, which included using SEP and chemical propellants for sending hardware to cis-lunar space and near-Mars space, in advance of a mission to Phobos and the Martian surface. Two scenarios were proposed that would rely to these methods to varying extents, both of which called for a total of 32 SLS launches.

However, the outcome of this meeting seemed to indicate that NASA is still thinking over its long-term options and has not yet committed to anything beyond the mission to a near-Earth asteroid. For instance, NASA has indicated that it is laying the groundwork for Phase One of the Mars mission, which calls for flight testing to cis-lunar space.

However, according to Hill, NASA is currently engaged in “Phase 0” of the three phase plan, which involves the use of the ISS to test crew health via long duration space flight. In addition, there are currently no plans for developing Phases Two and Three of the mission. Other problems, such as the Orion spacecraft’s heatshield – which is currently incapable of withstanding the speed of reentry coming all the way from Mar – have yet to be resolved.

Another major issue is that of funding. Thanks to the Obama administration and the passage of the Authorization Act of 2010, NASA has been able to take several crucial steps towards developing their plan for a mission to Mars. However, in order to take things to the next level, the US government will need to show a serious commitment to ensuring that all aspects of the plan get the funding they need.

And given that it is an election year, the budget environment may be changing in the near future. As such, now is the time for the agency to demonstrate that it is fully committed to every phase of its plan to puts boots on the ground of Mars.

On the other hand, NASA has taken some very positive strides in the past six years, and one cannot deny that they are serious about making the mission happen in the time frame it has provided. They are also on track when it comes to proving key concepts and technology.

In the coming years, with flight tests of the SLS and crewed tests of the Orion, they will be even further along. And given the support of both the federal government and the private sector, nothing should stand in the way of human boots touching red soil by the 2030s.

Artist's concept image of a boot print on the moon and on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept image of a boot print on the moon and on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Further Reading: NASA Spaceflight.com

Mars Colony Will Have To Wait, Says NASA Scientists

Establishing a human settlement on Mars has been the fevered dream of space agencies for some time. Long before NASA announced its “Journey to Mars” – a plan that outlined the steps that need to be taken to mount a manned mission by the 2030s – the agency’s was planning how a crewed mission could lead to the establishing of stations on the planet’s surface. And it seems that in the coming decades, this could finally become a reality.

But when it comes to establishing a permanent colony – another point of interest when it comes to Mars missions – the coming decades might be a bit too soon. Such was the message during a recent colloquium hosted by NASA’s Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. Titled “Selecting a Landing Site for Humans on Mars”, this presentation set out the goals for NASA’s manned mission in the coming decades.

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