Bengaluru: NASA’s next mission to Mars in 2020 will feature a souped-up unmanned rover vehicle to search for signs of ancient microbial life in areas of the uninhabitable red planet. The successor to the 2012 Curiosity rover, which could launch in July or August 2020, will be equipped with seven new instruments and re-designed wheels, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said.
The new vehicle will study the Mars terrain, above and below the surface, and collect soil and rock samples. “What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we’re alone in the universe,” said Ken Farley, a JPL scientist with the Mars 2020 project.
JPL is also developing a new landing technology that will allow the rover to visit sites deemed too risky for Curiosity and shave miles off its journey. The 2020 Mars mission will involve the use of a sky-crane, to conserve energy usage in the landing process. Another addition to its landing phase will be worked out through the use of terrain-relative navigation. Through this system, the rover will essentially be able to compare surface maps in its database and incoming terrain, in order to select a favourable landing spot.
NASA has successfully landed spacecraft on Mars seven times and is using the International Space Station to prepare for human missions to the moon and Mars. Most of the hardware from the Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012, will be retained on this mission. According to Mars Exploration Program Director Jim Watzin, the presence of technology to explore the Red Planet ‘reduces the risks with this launch.’ Through this mission, NASA will attempt to study the currently Martian terrain, and create a soil map of the planet.