New Mars 2020 rover will be able to 'hear' the Red Planet

Story highlights

  • The new Mars rover will have new sound and image capabilities
  • It will also contain new instruments that aim to study the Martian surface
  • What we learn from these instruments could help the human mission to Mars

(CNN)When the newly developed Mars 2020 rover lands on the Red Planet in February 2021 after embarking on a seven-month cruise through space, we will be able to hear sounds of the landing and the Martian surface for the first time, according to NASA.

"Not only is there going to be a microphone, there will be several microphones," said Kenneth Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist. "There will be a microphone as part of [the camera system during entry, descent and landing] and we will also have a microphone on one of the science instruments that will allow us to hear sounds on the surface as we are driving around. So we will have the first sounds coming back from Mars."
    Microphones were included on previous Mars missions, such as NASA's Phoenix Mars lander in 2008, but they were never utilized. A suite of cameras will allow us to see and hear what it's like for the rover to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend and land on the surface. It will also be able to take selfies, although NASA isn't disclosing how at the moment.
    The rover's mission is to seek signs of life on the Red Planet for two years. NASA is aiming to launch within a 30-day window in July 2020. If officials don't have the rover ready to go during that short time frame, they will have to wait another two years to launch, said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
    Scientists estimate that Mars is, or most certainly was, the most habitable planet in our solar system outside of Earth. Now, the planet is cold, dry and has a lot of radiation on the surface, which isn't conducive to life as we know it, Farley said.
    But after spending a Martian year on the surface, which is 687 days on Earth, the Mars Curiosity rover has collected evidence of all the conditions necessary for microbial life within the rocks on the Red Planet. There are clues in the rocks pointing to a once wet, warm planet with lakes, rivers and deltas, a habitable environment where life could have evolved and thrived. When the planet transitioned to being a cold desert 3.5 billion years ago, that life most certainly disappeared.
    The new rover on the block wants to find that life and any other secrets hiding in the Martian rock and soil. It hasn't been named yet because NASA wants to open that honor to the public.

    Shiny new features

    While the rover for the 2020 mission may look similar to Curiosity, which launched in 2011, it includes some exciting new features and proposed instruments from researchers in the United States, France, Spain and Norway that will enable us to see and explore Mars in an innovative way.
    NASA announced these innovations and more details of the rover's mission, which is entering the final design and construction phase, during a Facebook Live event Friday.
    Using the same platform as Curiosity, the new rover has a nuclear power source that can last at least 10 years, and has several cameras. Mastcam-Z, aptly located on the mast, can zoom like binoculars and create both panoramic and stereoscopic images, while also determining the mineral makeup of the Martian surface. This camera can also make 3-D maps.
    Besides imaging and mineralogy, a second instrument called SuperCam can analyze chemical compounds and detect organic molecules in rocks and the dusty surface from a distance. The researchers are also excited to have PIXL onboard, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer with high-resolution capabilities to map the elements in the Martian soil with greater detail and the best detection and analysis of chemical elements so far. Located on the rover's robotic arm, these can investigate a piece of rock the size of a postage stamp to look at the structure, fabric, element and mineral make-up of Martian rocks, as well as identify and map the distribution of organic molecules. Some of those organic molecules could be associated with life.
    Another spectrometer called SHERLOC will fire a laser at rocks in the distance and read the signals received in return to determine the elements and minerals within those rocks. This will give the rover an added advantage of learning more about the geologic environment it's exploring, which will be about 6.2 miles.
    The rover will also be equipped with a ground-penetrating radar called RIMFAX, which can investigate tens of meters beneath the surface it is traversing and look for unusual features like ice or brine.
    On top of the deck is a weather station called MEDA, which can measure temperature, the speed and direction of the wind, humidity and more properties of the dust it encounters.
    Last but not least, MOXIE will convert the carbon dioxide of the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.
    Many of these new instruments will help NASA determine more about safely landing humans on Mars and this mysterious surface they would explore.
    The new rover benefits from lessons learned while observing Curiosity and the issues that it has faced during its mission. The wheels, which are tougher than those on Curiosity after it faced issues traversing sharp rocks, are capable of digging little trenches on the Martian surface. A puffer will blow compressed air across rock samples so that the instruments on the rover can study it better.
    This rover is equipped with a coring drill on a five-jointed robotic arm that can position anywhere in front of the rover to take samples of rock, according to Matt Robinson, Mars 2020 sampling and caching team deputy manager at JPL. It can use a percussive jackhammer-like mode on tougher rocks, such basalt on Earth, and a rotary-only mode for the weaker ones, such as mud stones.
    Five different drill bits, which an engineer operating the rover from Earth can program the rover to change out, have space to store a core sample. They will then drop each core sample into a clean tube, use instruments on the rover to take a picture of the sample, seal the tube and then leave the samples in a pile so a future mission can pick them up. Because that mission would be determined in the future, there are currently no more details on Martian samples making the journey to Earth.
    The drills can also upbraid the surface or rock if scientists want to use the rover's instruments to have a closer look at the details.

    Sticking the landing

    Much like Curiosity, Mars 2020's rover will use a sky crane landing system. In order to land the rover gently on its wheels, a parachute slows the descent of the vehicle after entering the atmosphere and the heat shield separates. Rockets slow down the descent until it is safe enough for the sky crane attached to the rover to lower it on an "umbilical cord" of sorts. Sensors tell the sky crane when the rover has safely touched down, which cuts the cord and powers the crane to crash land far away from the path of the rover.
    Then, it's ready to rove.
    Unlike while it's on the surface and exploring, the rover's landing is entirely autonomous, with no help from engineers, This time, a range trigger will be added, which helps the descent vehicle determine if it needs to open the parachute earlier or later than expected. It will also use a suite of cameras to steer away from unsafe landing zones. This enables the rover to land in a more specific destination or a tighter spot. This new technology shrinks the area or margin of error by 50%.
    But where to land? Scientists have narrowed it down to eight possible landing sites. They want it to be able to land safely on a flatter surface that is surrounded by rocky terrain with the signs of habitability they want to study.
    "We want a lot of rocks or rock outcrop, because that's what tells us the geologic story," Farley said. "These must date from the days when Mars was wet 3.5 billion years ago. Out of the eight sites, the first half are associated with surface water such as rivers, lakes and deltas recorded in the rocks. The other half are associated with high temperature water circulating through the rocks. On Earth, those are areas where microbial life thrives."
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    Over the next couple of years, they hope to determine the final landing site.
    In the meantime, Curiosity's observations continue to thrill us, the MAVEN orbiter will arrive in September to study the Martian upper atmosphere and the InSight lander will launch in 2018 to study the interior of the planet. These are part of the continuing Mars Exploration program, which are paving the way for a human landing on the Red Planet.
    "This is taking the first step towards what we've wanted for a long time," Farley said.