We’ve sent quite few rovers to Mars. From Pathfinder (which had a second life in pop culture thanks to the book/movie The Martian) to Opportunity to Curiosity, the United States has sent a grand total of nine landers to the red planet. And now, we’re prepping another rover: Mars 2020, scheduled to launch in (you guessed it) the year 2020.
Why do we need another rover, though? It’s a fair question. We’ve already sent so many unmanned landers to the red planet; why send another instead of going ourselves?
Sunset on Mars (Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
The answer is precisely because we’re going to go ourselves. Mars is not close to Earth; it’s not like going to the Moon, where if something goes wrong, it’s a mere three-day journey home. Mars is nine months away, at its closest (and that only happens once every 26 months or so). We need to know what’s in store for our astronauts. If they’ll eventually live and work on the red planet, what can they expect? Where are good landing sites? What areas should they avoid? What is the soil made of; can we find fuel or water underneath Mars’ surface? The only way to prepare for a human visit to Mars is to gather as much data as possible, which means sending another lander.
As of right now, Mars 2020 has three different possible landing sites: the Jezero Crater, which is a dry lakebed that may have once harbored life, NE Syrtis Major, which used to be warmed by underground volcanic activity and, perhaps the most interesting for those of us interested in a manned mission to Mars, Gusev Crater. This was also the landing site for the Spirit rover. While it may seem like a waste to send a rover somewhere we’ve already been, there’s some logic behind it. First, Mars 2020’s instruments are going to be much more advanced than Spirit’s, so there will absolutely be the opportunity to build on what we’ve previously learned and ask new questions based on data we already have. Second (and this is especially interesting for those of us invested in humans going to Mars), because we’ve mapped part of the Gusev Crater, this would provide a second look at the site as a possible landing destination for astronauts.
Mars 2020 artist’s concept (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Once Mars 2020 arrives at the red planet (its estimated arrival is February 2021), it will begin its descent to the surface. The heat shield will protect the delicate rover from temperatures as hot as 3,800 degrees F. Friction within Mars’ thin atmosphere will help slow down the spacecraft from about 13,200 miles per hour to around 1,000. Seven miles above the ground, the parachute will deploy and the heat shield will fall away, exposing the rover. Mars 2020 will take photographs during its descent and compare them with preinstalled maps. It will actually have the capability to divert using retrorockets during its parachute descent to the surface to ensure that it doesn’t land off course. Finally, what’s called the Sky Crane will begin to lower the rover on nylon ropes and the lander will drop onto the surface. The part still in the air cuts the cords and flies away, ensuring it won’t damage the rover when it impacts the surface.
One of the challenges of studying Mars is that we haven’t been able to actually analyze Martian rocks and soil in person; everything we know about the red planet comes from robotic analysis. But Mars 2020 will have an entirely new subsystem that will prepare around 30 soil and rock samples for later retrieval by another spacecraft or by astronauts. It doesn’t solve the problem immediately, for sure—we still have to get people there to retrieve them (or build a spacecraft that can do it)—but it’s a great first step.
Curiosity takes a self-portrait on Mars (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Another cool tool that Mars 2020 might have on board is a drone helicopter. After landing, the solar-powered drone would separate from the rover. Onboard cameras would map upcoming terrain for daily two-minute flights, delivering a more comprehensive view of what Mars 2020 would be facing. NASA estimates that reliance on aerial images, rather than only ground-level cameras on the rover itself (which is how we currently map Curiosity’s path) would allow the rover to cover in the neighborhood of two to three times more ground per day. That’s a huge difference, especially when you consider it’s taken Curiosity almost 5 years to travel 10 miles.
The bottom line is there’s a lot to look forward to once the Mars 2020 rover lifts off in July 2020. There are good reasons for sending this rover to the red planet, and a strong case for developing more rovers and landers to explore the planet beyond this one. These are all small, but necessary, steps to eventually sending humans to Mars.
Top and lead photos by NASA
Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor and giant space/sci-fi geek.