NASA’s December 2012 announcement that a new Mars rover would be launched in 2020 has left a lot of room for speculation about what the mission’s objectives will be. The rover will have the same chassis design as Curiosity, and it will land on the surface using the same successful entry, descent, and landing system that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) pioneered in August 2012. However, it is likely that the rover itself will carry a very different scientific payload and will therefore be a very different rover with a very different mission.
The 2020 mission’s preliminary budget has been set at $1.5 billion, substantially less than the $2.5 billion needed for the MSL mission. Savings are anticipated through the re-use of much of the MSL engineering designs, including the complex combination of aeroshell, parachute, rocket, and sky-crane that successfully landed Curiosity last year. Re-using these designs means that the 2020 rover will need to be of a similar size and a similar mass to Curiosity. The 2020 rover is also expected to be powered by a spare multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG), which is a close copy of the unit currently providing electrical power to Curiosity.
That is about all the information that is publicly available at this time, and the various science payloads that might be added to the new rover’s chassis remain to be determined. The next steps will be taken by the Science Definition Team, chaired by Professor John Mustard from Brown University. The team’s charter is to establish “science goals and measurement objectives,” which will be contained in a report due to be released in July 2013. This report will then inform what NASA calls an Announcement of Opportunity (AO), essentially a call for submissions of costed proposals to build key components of the new rover. The AO is loosely scheduled for the northern hemisphere’s 2013 summer.
Following the announcement of the 2020 rover, there has been considerable speculation about what the new rover’s science capabilities may be. For example, a 3D camera, which had the backing of James Cameron and was originally flagged to be part of the MSL mission, might be revived. Also, the 2020 rover might be equipped with a caching facility, which had been proposed for the cancelled 2018 MAX-C (Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher) mission. Caching means the collection and storage of rocks and regolith in a suitable container, which might then be collected by a subsequent Mars sample-return mission.
In fact, current thinking is that a successful Mars sample return will require three separate mission launches. First, a rover, like the 2020 rover, will collect and cache suitable samples in a sealed container. Second, a new spacecraft will be put in Mars orbit, which has the capacity to send a sample container back to Earth. Third, a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) will be landed on Mars, carrying a scaled-down rover with the sole task of retrieving a cached sample container and returning it to the MAV. The MAV then launches the sample container up to the orbiting Earth-return spacecraft, which then launches it on a return trajectory to Earth.
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