We are now that much closer to seeing this advanced tech in action because the brains at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have just started assembling the cruise and descent stages of the Mars 2020 mission. The rover will soar through space in its cruise stage, then enter descent with a rocket-powered “sky crane” that will lower it toward the surface until it touches down.
NASA is developing some hardcore hardware and instruments that will search the Red Planet for signs of life like never before. This rover is what Curiosity wishes it was, with revamped wheels for braving rocks and craters plus seven new instruments, including a drill to dissect rock cores for samples and a caching system that will use a creepy-cool robotic arm to seal up that material and either send it back to Earth or leave it in the Martian dust for a future human mission. Its X-ray spectrometer will zoom in to look for potential biosignatures invisible to the naked eye, and radar able to penetrate the surface will be able to see subterranean water, ice, and rock layers up to 30 feet deep. It will even be equipped with an ultraviolet laser that can detect excited carbon atoms (which could be the remnants of ancient carbon-based life forms) from their otherworldly glow.
2020 will also have more autonomy than its predecessors, meaning it will know where to go and what to seek out without always having commands beamed from the home planet. It’s the closest thing to putting boots on Mars for science until we can send humans.
Curiosity’s design elements and hardware won’t be going in the NASA vault anytime soon. Upgraded versions of these will include a zoom lens, color cameras, and a laser that can vaporize regolith to study it in macro mode. Mars 2020 will inherit much of its predecessor’s structure and use pre-existing concepts despite a drastically different mission objective that focuses on unearthing potential evidence of life that could have thrived 3.5 billion years ago.
"The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed—or even already exists—is a major advantage for this mission," said NASA Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin. "It saves us money, time, and most of all, reduces risk."
JPL has also figured out how to (almost) eliminate landing errors in the descent stage with new terrain-relative navigation technology.
"Terrain-relative navigation enables us to go to sites that were ruled too risky for Curiosity to explore," said JPL’s Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead Al Chen. "The range trigger lets us land closer to areas of scientific interest, shaving miles—potentially as much as a year—off a rover's journey."
This is proof of how much the mission’s computer will be able to think for itself. Its digital vision will compare the surface with terrain maps that have already been downloaded so more dangerous areas can be ruled out. A range trigger will then determine when to fire the parachute based on location and velocity, so the rover scientists, astro-enthusiasts, and alien hunters everywhere will have been waiting for won’t instantaneously crash and burn.
Where Mars 2020 lands will depend on what could be unearthed at that site. Fossilized microbial aliens? Maybe.