Mars 2020 is Coming


From the day I landed at JPL, the biggest buzz was around the next flagship mission we intended to deliver.  In about 13 months, that mission is set to launch.  So, it’s time to get you Bear Feeders buzzing about it as well.

Mars 2020 will be the next rover to land on the red planet.   Mars 2020 is a juxtaposition of a mission not very unlike Curiosity (aka Mars Science Lab or MSL) that landed up there in 2012, but also the most technologically advanced mission to visit another planet.  It’s an aggressive attempt to achieve way more than Curiosity and advance our knowledge of interplanetary travel by a good leap and bound.

Wait … let’s slow … take a couple breaths … exciting yes, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As I mentioned, Mars 2020 builds off of Curiosity’s success as well as its design.  Both rovers are the size of a small SUV with a vast array of instruments on a test bed driven around by six independent wheels.  It had a revolutionary Entry/Descent/Landing called the Sky Crane method (or colloquially as ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’).  First of all – depending on the time of year, signals from Mars take between seven and fifteen minutes to reach Earth, then just as long to send back – to the landing had to be completely autonomous.  Mars’s atmosphere is thick enough that a heat shield is needed, but thing enough that a parachute won’t get you down safely.  Thrusters are needed, but it kicks up too much dust.  A few meters before touchdown the rover was lowered by a crane that later cut its tethers and flew away.  That same concept will be used but will have an additional landing camera and guidance system that will allow the descent stage to pick the final landing spot automatically to give the safest result.  Other than that, the main body of the rover is the same (well, the wheels are different, but only to reduce wear).

From a grander scale, the mission has changed.
Curiosity’s main mission was to answer the question: “Did Mars ever have the right conditions to support life at any time in its history?”  Curiosity answered that question with a resounding, Yes!
Mars 2020 will try to answer the next logical question: “If Mars could have supported life, did it?”
Mars 2020 has other lofty goals:  Characterize the Climate of Mars, Characterize the Geology of Mars, and Prepare for Human Exploration of Mars

To get all this done, there a bunch of key instruments on board:

SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.  I visited the company that designed and built this instrument (literally a garage, there was a motorcycle repair shop next door).  They gave me a laymen’s version of what SHERLOC does, and it essentially will scan the ground for signs of organics.  In other words … if there was life at any time in the dirt under the rover, this guy will find it.  This is the unit that could prove that Earth wasn’t the only life-bearing planet, that we aren’t alone in this universe.

By the way, if you can’t tell JPL and NASA use heavy hands when naming their instrumentation.  Sometimes forcing an acronym to work even if it is quirky.  SHERLOC is an investigation tool, kind of like the fictional detective.  Well, SHERLOC happens to have a camera that acts as a sidekick and helps to make observations of how the instrument is doing … that’s right, it’s called WATSON.

MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) is another big one.  Mars’s atmosphere isn’t breathable by humans, but it has some oxygen in it.  If humans are ever going to visit or live there, then we need to know if we can produce enough oxygen to sustain life.  MOXIE is the first demonstration model of how that could be done.

Other instruments like PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) are designed to take better reading so the geology of Mars.

Mars 2020 will also be equipped with the most advanced planetary cameras in history.  Few people know that while black-and-white photos are transmitted like photos on your phone, a color picture from Mars is typically is a rendering of scanned data with known feature output – think of it as there is someone on Mars explaining to an artist on Earth what they see then the artist recreates that result.  Mars 2020 will have cameras that can capture and transmit real color photos.  It will also have zooming technology to get finer detail.  While some of it is still to get worked out, there is hope to have an array of landing cameras to get faster and greater photos of the entry, descent, and landing.

Then in what is a major forward-thinking idea, the rover will have what’s called a Sample Caching System (SCS).  Like with Curiosity, the rover will be equipped with a rock drill to allow the retrieval of material for testing.  The SCS intends to take that mater and place it inside of metal tubes.  Somewhere, the tubes are stacked in a big cache by the rover and left behind.  Then somewhere in the future, a mission will send something to that cache, pick up all the tubes, then return them to Earth.  If this works out, it will be the first time material from another planet will be brought home (or our home I guess).  The SCS is going to fly, we’re pretty sure about that – but what we aren’t sure is when something will pick it up, or how, or … anything.  There is no mission planned yet to do that, but we are still doing the sampling.

Crazy right?  I mean, this is all out there and crazy.

Oh by the way … we’re going to put a helicopter on it.

You heard me.

Mars 2020 will include the Mars Helicopter.  It is a four blade drone that has the intention to fly ahead of the rover to look for potential hazards.  It comes with a docking station and everything.  It’s a hell of an idea, because like with landing the rover, no signal can be sent in real time due to the delay between Earth and Mars.  You basically have to pre-program any flight.  Thing is, if the helicopter crashes or screws up, it won’t hurt the bulldozer of a rover – so we the approach was a ‘do no harm’ mission low funded.  The inside joke is if the Helicopter can lift off and take a Rover Selfie it will be a mission success.

Currently, the Mars 2020 build is happening at full speed at JPL, and just a half a block from my desk in the Satelite Assembly Facility (SAF) also known as ‘the high bay’ where so many great JPL missions were built.  You can see pictures of it from time to time on my Facebook and Instagram since it’s pretty easy for me to pop into the observation bay.  Also, JPL has a live YouTube channel filming the build as it happens, so feel free to check that out at:

Seeing 2020

Last week they added the Mobility System (the wheels and suspension), they are getting ready to attach the robotic arm, and are gunning for environmental testing to start later next month.  That all, of course, is on the Rover; but in the SAF is also the cruise stage (which is what protects and keeps the rover on course between Earth and Mars), Aeroshell (which also protects the Rover during cruise & decent), and the Descent Stage (which is the actual Sky Crane).  The heat shield is still under assembly but will meet the Rover in Kennedy in January.

The whole of the work here at JPL is expected to be complete in a couple of months, after which it will be buttoned up and shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  There, the final assembly and final testing will take place before it is put on top of a massive ULA Atlas V Rocket.  The launch window opens July 17th, 2020; the earliest projected landing is in February 2021.

As for my part in all of this … well, I am expecting to put something together that better explains what I do here, but essentially I am tightly touching parts and instrument suppliers at their earlier stages of work.  That being said, since coming to JPL about 10-15% of my time has been on Mars 2020 work of some type; for me that’s significant.  It was the first mission I caught any buzz about, and it is the first mission that I feel I had a part in.  So yeah … it’s kind of a big deal to me.

As things progress, I will update more on Mars 2020, but in the meantime … let’s start counting the days.


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