Building on the success of Curiosity’s landing, NASA has announced plans for the next robotic science rover, which is set to launch in 2020. The proposed 2020 rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. The mission would address key questions about the potential for life on Mars, and would provide opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars.

The mission would be based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), including the Curiosity rover and proven landing system, to keep mission costs and risks as low as possible.

A science definition team (SDT) has outlined the mission’s objectives and the strategies to achieve them, including developing a realistic surface operations scenario, suggestions for threshold science measurements that would meet the proposed objectives, and a proof-of-concept instrument suite.

Relying on Proven, Innovative Technologies

This mission will enable surface operations lasting one Mars year (about 687 Earth days). It will rely on prior technological innovations, especially for entry, descent, and landing. As successfully demonstrated by MSL, the spacecraft would use a guided entry, descent, and landing system, which includes a parachute, descent vehicle, and, during the final seconds prior to landing, the skycrane maneuver for lowering the rover on a tether to the surface. This landing system provides the ability to land a very large, heavy rover on the surface of Mars in a more precise landing area.

The rover design would also enable a Curiosity-class, long-range mobility system on the surface (5-20 kilometers, or about 3 to 12 miles) for the investigation of diverse rocks and soils, and potentially other studies.

Based on the recommendations of the SDT, the Mars 2020 rover mission would have the following five potential objectives. Requiring both orbital and ground observations, the first three objectives have strong synergy, as they are linked by the need to decipher the geological processes and history of an “astrobiologically relevant ancient environment,” a place once capable of either supporting life as we know it or sustaining pre-biological processes leading to an origin of life.

  • Objective A: Characterize the geology of a site selected for its potential to contain evidence of past life, as well as for its geologic diversity.
  • Objective B: Search for possible signs of life preserved in the geologic record.
  • Objective C: Identify and cache scientifically compelling samples for potential future return to Earth laboratories.
  • Objective D: Conduct key measurements and demonstrations to enable the possible future human exploration of Mars.
  • Objective E: Make meaningful technology advancements that enable future strategic Mars missions.

According to Dr. Michael Meyer, Lead Scientist of the Mars Exploration Program, the SDT will look at the objectives to determine the science goals. “Part of their report is example payloads that say ‘here are the objectives — if you do these things, it makes the mission worthwhile,’ or ‘what instruments can you suggest that could make those measurements so that you can meet your objectives?’”

NASA’s plans include openly competing the opportunity for the mission’s specific payload and science instruments. Said Meyer, “Some of the instruments will look the same [as those on Curiosity] and some of the instruments will be different because we have different objectives, and we are going to do an announcement of opportunity. It will be an open competition for instruments that will be part of the payload.”

NASA held a similar competition in 2004 to determine the instrument suite onboard Curiosity. “You would hope that instruments would improve a little bit since then, and you know how to do things a little bit better so you can fine-tune exactly what you want your instruments to do,” explained Meyer. “The payload will be different and we don’t know what it will be until we run the competition. We’ll find out those things that would not only do fantastic measurements, but whether or not they complement the other instruments that are selected.”

The complete Science Definition Team report is available online at: .