Mars 2020 Rover: Curiosity’s Hi-Tech Twin Is Strapped For Science; Includes A Flying Drone

While Mars may be significantly behind its sunward neighbor in terms of the number of motor vehicles crawling over its surface, it seems like we’re doing our best to close that gap. Over the last 23 years, humans have sent four successful rovers to the surface of the Red Planet, from the tiny Sojourner to the Volkswagen-sized Curiosity. These vehicles have all carved their six-wheeled tracks into the Martian dust, probing the soil and the atmosphere and taking pictures galore, all of which contribute mightily to our understanding of our (sometimes) nearest planetary neighbor.

You’d think then that sending still more rovers to Mars would yield diminishing returns, but it turns out there’s still plenty of science to do, especially if the dream of sending humans there to explore and perhaps live is to come true. And so the fleet of Martian rovers will be joined by two new vehicles over the next year or so, lead by the Mars 2020 program’s yet-to-be-named rover. Here’s a look at the next Martian buggy, and how it’s built for the job it’s intended to do.

If It Ain’t Broke…

The Mars 2020 mission is part of the broader Mars Exploration Program, or MEP. The MEP was born from the failure of the Mars Observer mission in 1992, NASA’s first attempted mission to Mars since the successful Viking program in the 1970s. The soil chemistry experiments performed by the static Viking landers suggested that life may have been possible on Mars, but the results were equivocal. NASA launched the MEP to answer the question of life on Mars definitively, as well as to characterize the geology and atmosphere of the planet to prepare for human exploration.

Unfortunately, a lot of the missions that were to make up MEP were lost to budget cutbacks in 2012, and the only money earmarked for planetary exploration was contingent of being spent on missions capable of returning samples to Earth. Curiosity had already made it to Mars by that point, though, and was returning exciting results and glorious photos of the Martian landscape. And while it was capable of sampling the Martian regolith, Curiosity was not able to collect samples that could one day be returned to Earth.

Curiosity did, however, prove that a large rover with a complex mission profile could land successfully and perform under challenging conditions. Not willing to mess with success, and operating under budget restrictions, NASA decided to essentially clone Curiosity for the Mars 2020 rover. The rovers would be mechanically very similar, with different science packages bolted on, as well as the addition of the hardware needed to package samples for eventual retrieval and return to Earth.

Super-Charged for Science

Outwardly, it’s hard to tell the difference between Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rover. Both use the proven six-wheel articulated bogie design, with each wheel powered by its own electric motor. The wheels have been redesigned for Mars 2020, though, thanks to lessons learned from seven years of abuse suffered by Curiosity‘s wheels.

Mars 2020 rover, bedazzled with 23 cameras. Source: NASA

The main hulls of the two rovers look almost identical, with the same angled “trunk” area at the rear of the vehicle supporting the same plutonium-powered Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermal Generator (MMRTG) module to provide 110 Watts of electrical power and 2,000 Watts of heat for the rovers’ guts. The Mars 2020 MMRTG is literally a leftover from Curiosity, as are many other parts and instruments.

Things start to differ when you start looking at the science the two rovers were designed to support. The most obvious difference is the main robotic arm of Mars 2020, which is stronger than the arm on Curiosity and sports different instruments, such as an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer dubbed PIXL and a pair of adorably named geological instruments: SHERLOC, an ultraviolet Raman spectrometer for fine-scale mineralogy and detection of organic molecules, and WATSON, a high-resolution camera to provide images of targets that SHERLOC might be interested in.

The Mars 2020 rover arm also supports a coring drill, designed to cut cylindrical core sections from rock rather than just pulverize them as Curiosity‘s drill does. A “bit carousel” allows the arm to select from a number of other tools, including grinding tools to abrade rocks.

Return to Sender

Should a particular sample prove promising based on the results of on-board experiments, a sample handling system in the belly of the rover will get to work. The bit carousel has slots to accept special sample containers, which are stored in a rack under the rover. A small robotic arm, looking somewhat like a SCARA arm from a semiconductor fab, places a sample tube in the bit carousel, which rotates it up so the arm can access it. The core sample is ejected into the sample tube, which is then returned to storage in the sample handling area before being hermetically sealed. The sample handling hardware is shown nicely in the video below:

The rover can collect and store up to 43 samples on-board. The mission plan calls for the team to designate a “caching depot” where the samples collected during the one Martian year-long primary mission will be dropped. Sample tubes, along with control tubes to assess unintended contamination, will be released from the sample handler into a pile on the regolith. Any samples collected during the subsequent extended mission will also be left at the cache, to await a future sample return mission.

The Mars 2020 rover’s landing site, Jezero Crater, was selected because it was once a 250 meter deep lake at about the time life was first appearing on Earth. On Earth, the sediments that are deposited into lake beds are rich in life, and it’s hoped that Martian sediments have preserved any signs of life that developed 3.5 billion years ago. Also, the ancient lake bed features a delta structure from a river that once fed into it, again holding potential for finding “biosignatures” from any life that got a toehold on Mars.

Droning On

The Mars Helicopter Scout being prepared for a vacuum chamber test flight. Click for higher resolution, and behold the engineering in the dual swash plates. Source: NASA/JPL

One of the most interesting pieces of hardware making the trip aboard the rover is the Mars Helicopter Scout. Primarily included to test the technology and explore the challenges of extraterrestrial aviation, the small drone will make several short flights sometime in the early part of the rover’s primary mission. Stored in the rover’s belly, the coaxial-rotor drone carries an array of technology that will seem familiar to most hackers: a Snapdragon SoC running Linux, MCUs for flight control, and a Zig-Bee link back to the rover. It even has a lithium-ion battery pack and camera for navigation and observation.

Each of the MHS flights will last only about 3 minutes and get no more than 10 meters above the surface. Navigation will use a solar tracker and inertial guidance. NASA hopes that the high-resolution camera will provide detailed images of the sample cache to inform the design of sample return mission hardware.

Between the first extraterrestrial aircraft, the slate of science experiments planned – including making oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere – and the potential to actually return pieces of the Martian regolith, Mars 2020 has the potential to be a breakthrough mission. And with the rover safely bundled up and being prepared for integration with the launch vehicle, everything seems on-track for the mission’s July launch, and the rover’s date with destiny.

[Featured images: NASA/JPL]

35 thoughts on “Mars 2020 Rover: Curiosity’s Hi-Tech Twin Is Strapped For Science; Includes A Flying Drone

  1. And still no microscope.

    If the question is whether there’s life on Mars, the best way to find it is to stick a bit of the soil on a glass plate, put a little water on it, and zoom in to see if anything moves. NASA has been avoiding the obvious for all the Mars missions.

      1. “Able to resolve 0.004-inch (0.1 millimeter) objects/features.”

        That’s not a proper microscope. That’s no better than a standard loupe. A biological microscope with 10x eyepieces and a 40x objective has 400x magnification.

        The largest bacterium ever recorded is about 0.1 mm in size. Anything you’d expect to find is an order of magnitude smaller.

      2. With a resolving power of 0.1 mm that’s a loupe, not a microscope. It would just be able to detect the largest bacterium ever recorded, while anything you might find of Mars is likely to be at least an order of magnitude smaller.

    1. Though you wonder if other considerations make them specifically avoid putting a lander/rover on top of the easiest place to find micro-fossils…

      For instance I’m thinking that an exposed layer of diatomaceous earth type stuff would be super friable, and would be making a continuous duststorm downwind. It might be hell to travel onto, and it would get into EVERYTHING… getting anywhere near it would effectively blind all instruments.

    2. Plenty of microbes have no obvious motion under a microscope, and microscopy data often isn’t conclusive enough evidence that something is alive. Just look at how much arguing there was over proposed early-Earth fossils ( Not to mention that adding water to a sample like that would play havoc with it, Mars is pretty dry so I’d hazard a guess that if there were cells on the surface they’d probably burst in water like a halophilic cell on Earth would.

      The geochemical data are likely to be much more interesting, and any microscopy will probably be much better done and more conclusive when handled by humans once the samples Mars 2020 takes get back to Earth. More than anything else there are a whole plethora of microscopy techniques which you’d want to apply to a sample like this, and there’s only so much instrument space on the robot.

    3. You’re correct luke. It’s bullshit. I once asked a nasa scientist who works on the mars program about this very thing. His answer (off the record) was that the mars lander program exists to get kids excited about technology and once they get a engineering degree but don’t make the cut to work for nasa, they get scooped up by CIA to work on cool spy shit that CIA can’t brag about to attract young people.

      If they find life on mars, it could disrupt the strategy of sending ever cooler rovers and instead mas produce spirit / opportunity rovers that would be much more cost effective but yesterday’s news and thus kids don’t get inspired from repetitive strategies using old technology, even if those strategies are more effective.

      Nasa isn’t looking for life because making the greatest discovery within reach isn’t the reason for the mars program. It’s jobs for California and fresh brain power for the CIA.

    4. >”They sent two. Spirit and Opportunity both had a microscope. ”

      No they didn’t. The resolution of those cameras isn’t enough to image bacteria. The commenting system is pre-censoring my messages again – but only in trying to reply to this particular message. “Curious”…

    1. I’m guessing less air means faster spinning rotors and more lift. There’s weaker gravity on Mars too. I wonder how it performed in vacuum chamber on Earth with our 3-4x gravity.

  2. At 1:32 in the video, you can see little AR tags on the surface of the coring drill? Any idea what this would be for? I don’t really see why you would need pose estimation on the end of a robotic arm when you can so easily put encoders in the joints to track the drills position.

    1. “easy” is relative when you also have to consider weight, reliability and accuracy. It maybe the tradeoffs are such that the tags are better suited, they may be a back up or for (re) calibration, or may not even stay on.

    2. That was for the AI to track when Ben Affleck and Steve Buscemi were teaching it how to drill. They can’t go this time as they copped a lifetime dose of radiation when they drilled that asteroid in ’98.

  3. Hopefully they’ve learned that some things just don’t need tolerances *that tight* in order to function properly, especially in a dusty environment. The AK 47 and 74 series rifles have shown that for a long time. Several pieces of equipment on Mars probes and rovers have either failed completely or had to be recovered (usually to partial function) with workarounds due to tolerances too tight for the intended job getting jammed with windblown dust.

    I bet this rover still doesn’t have what would be one of the most useful accessories on a planet with an atmosphere, a blower/vac. Since Mars has atmosphere (though it’s real lousy for what a meal costs up there) it’s possible to use forced movement of it to do useful tasks.

    What kinds of tasks? Self cleaning of solar panels. WTH has no solar panel equipped Mars probe or rover had fans mounted to blow its solar panels clean? Same for camera lenses. They should have fans or something to blow jets of Martian atmo across to whisk away dust accumulation. Want to get down to some solid rock for examination and sampling? Blow, baby, blow! One ducted fan on its own lightweight articulated arm could serve a huge number of purposes, including a high resolution full color CMOS camera and video sensor as used in smartphones. Use it mainly for aiming the arm but also for the occasional 4K *true color* shots laser-beamed to the orbiting data vault to be beamed back to Earth via laser.

    Could probably source all the parts for $100 from Banggood and Home Depot and the blower/cam arm would be as space ready and rugged as the rest of the rover – because it’d be light weight and built to do one broadly taskable function and do it well without needing super tight tolerances.

    What about using the atmosphere the other way by using the principle of the only home appliance that’s good when it sucks? Vacuum! Want to move some small rocks, pick up lots of soil in a hurry, clean a lot of Marsdust off a solar panel quickly without getting it all over something else? SUCK IT! Put flexible silicone hose (google corrugated silicone hose) at the joints of the tubular arm with the blower on its end and your Mars rover has the envy of every modern homeowner, a central vacuum system. Move the blower to the stationary end of the arm and the arm can be even lighter and lower cost because all that’s out there is a wee little sugar cube sized housing for the camera and a microphone.

    A microphone? Yes! Send another one. The only actual microphone sent to Mars, with the intent to record Martian sounds (unlike the inferred sounds that have been teased out of other instruments that aren’t microphones) went *splat* along with the rest of a failed probe.

    Sound could be a navigation aid. Design a whistle that will make an audible tone in the low density Martian atmosphere, at typical Martian wind speeds. Plonk that down where the sample cache is and future retrievers can follow the whistle to their work. Combined with the microphone on the rover it would work for testing sound propagation through the atmosphere.

    Just amazed me that all these scientists and engineers have for so long ignored the most abundant and easily manipulated “tool” Mars has to offer, its atmosphere.

    At least they’re making a start on using the atmosphere with the flying drone. Various flying devices have been proposed for Mars but AFAIK this is the first one to ever get beyond the sketch and painting and “This would be neat.” stage. Still only using the atmosphere as a medium to be clawed through as a way to elevate a camera.

    1. There was once a proposal to use a blimp-like explorer and I’m honestly surprised it didn’t get approved. That would have been a fantastic way to explore Mars. They said it would have been too big and bulky to deal with the gases and buoyancy necessary to make it happen; yet we have centuries of experience solving that very problem on Earth?? Insanity. They could have even put some of the solar cells on the envelope since it would be so big anyways.

    2. Don’t buy that BS about the AK. InRange (YouTube) does mud tests on popular weapons and the AK was one of the worst modern ones, significantly worse than an AR. The only advantage AK’s loose tolerances give is in maintenance: shoot an AK and throw it in a locker, it’ll work again 12 months later.

  4. Them making a drone is proof that NASA is just a bunch of idiots, just wasting out money. As a licensed, certified drone pilot for over 10 years using the latest technology. There is no way they will ever get that thing to be worth the money put into it. Sure, they may get it to shoot straight up and take some photos but it will come crashing down. There will be no way for them to maneuver it or control it. It’s pointless.

    A simple gas filled balloon with a camera attached would cost far less.

    NASA, spend less money on big dreams that wont pan out, and more time thinking or practical ways to spend my tax dollars.

        1. Where your thinking is going particularly wrong, is that you are confusing earth aircraft flown at high altitude (low pressure) with aircraft 100% designed for low pressure, which even purpose built high altitude earth aircraft aren’t, they’re compromises… otherwise they can’t go the 0-70,000 feet to get up there. So you’re thinking, “you can’t make the airfoils large enough” you can, “you can’t make the control throws effective enough” you can “you can’t make the motor power big enough to drag a huge rotor up to speed” lower drag, duh, you can.

          1. I understand what you’re saying, but the situation is still different. Because of the low density, driving a drone there is like flying a pinball – with only 10 minutes of power. I’m not saying it can’t fly – I’m saying you can’t fly it without crashing everywhere, or barely making out of docking bay before you have to turn back to make the landing.

    1. Watch out guys, we got a certified drone “pilot” over here. Surely his community college course has given him all the knowledge necessary to prove NASA and the engineers who designed and built this craft wrong.

      Hopefully it’s not too late to call down to the Cape and have the liftoff canceled. Would hate to see them make such a terrible mistake.

  5. Time to start looking for Martian locations to use for nuclear waste disposal. We don’t want all these plutonium batteries abandoned out in the field, what if some Martian hackers start playing with it without knowing that it is radioactive?

  6. I always enjoy the comments section when NASA builds something, all the armchair experts pointing out how terrible and dumb NASA’s engineers are.


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