Rocket AtlasV 541
launched from Cape Canaveral, SLC-41USA
The Mars 2020 mission
Example of a flight to Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It takes roughly seven months to reach Mars. Well, if you start your journey at the right moment, of course. Otherwise, be prepared to spend much more time and propellant to reach the red planet.
The "right moment" happens only once every two years or so when Mars and Earth come relatively close to each other. Should you miss the opportunity, you'll probably have to wait for another two years as it recently happened to the ExoMars 2020 mission. It could have been an excellent "partner" for Mars 2020 but, unfortunately, it slipped due to technical problems, and now the expedition is rescheduled and referred to as "ExoMars 2022".
In 2020, the launch window to send a rocket to Mars lasts approximately from mid-July to mid-August. The first mission to use this window was the Emirates Mission to Mars (Hope, 19 July). It was soon followed by a Chinese mission to Mars (Tianwen-1, 23 July), and now Mars 2020 is the next one to go with the launch date set to 30 July.
For Mars 2020, the primary goal is to search for evidence of past microbial life on Mars, as described in this video:
The rover and the helicopter
Let's briefly overview the two main components of the mission, the Perseverance rover, and the Ingenuity helicopter.
The Rover is based on the existing Curiosity rover design from the Mars Science Laboratory Mission (2011). Here is the Rover's agenda:
- Search for rocks that can potentially carry traces of ancient microbial life.
- Drill and collect samples of selected rocks and regolith from the Martian surface.
- Carefully stash the samples in strategically chosen places to be delivered back to Earth by future missions.
- Test the generation of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. This technology might be handy for future human missions to Mars as oxygen will be required to produce propellant and for breathing. Find more about this test on the NASA site.
Mars rover Perseverance. Artists impression. Image credit: NASA
- Perseverance is the largest (3 meters long) and the heaviest (1050 kg) Mars rover ever built by NASA.
- Rover can travel with a speed of up to 152 meters per hour.
- The planned bandwidth of data transfer to Earth is 148 megabits per Mars day.
- The camera onboard the rover can produce images comparable to those from a 2-megapixel consumer-grade digital camera with 1600x1200 resolution. It has zooming capabilities (28-100 mm), and it is stereoscopic. So we can expect some fantastic 3D photos from Mars as well as some HD video (though only four frames per second).
Before we get any pictures from the new rover, here is what we might see based on the previous expedition to Mars:
An actual Curiosity selfie on Mars, 2018. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Ingenuity helicopter's mission is separate from the rover's mission and scientifically is entirely independent. Its main goal is to demonstrate the first-ever powered flight on another planet. It's equipped with two cameras, so we might see some interesting pictures taken during its trips over the Mars surface.
Some facts about the helicopter:
- Weight: 1.8 kg.
- Height: 0.49 meters.
- Rotors span: 1.2 meters.
- Planned flights: up to 5.
Mars 2020 is a pivotal mission in our search for life that would finally answer the age-old question: "Are we alone?"
We will be updating the article as the mission unfolds. Stay tuned!