NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is slowly taking shape. After adding the rover’s stereoscopic navigation cameras and prototype wheels, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have attached the rover’s SuperCam Mast Unit. This vital piece of equipment will allow Mars 2020 to analyze samples from a distance as it searches for signs of life.
The SuperCam is mounted to one side of the mas unit. NASA seems to encourage personification of its robots with all the selfies, so you’ll probably think of this as the rover’s “head.” Curiosity has the same mast design, but its instrument is known as the ChemCam.
Curiosity’s instrument has a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and a Remote Micro Imager (RMI) telescope. The SuperCam, as the name implies, is a more advanced version of the ChemCam. It has a LIMS, a raman spectrophotometer, an IR spectrophotometer, and a telephoto camera. The SuperCam is a collaboration between researchers in the US, France, and Spain. The final component, the IR spectrophotometer, arrived from France a few weeks ago, allowing JPL to complete the SuperCam installation.
NASA says the SuperCam will allow Mars 2020 to analyze samples for signs of life, even if they died off millions of years ago. The SuperCam can focus on a pencil point sample from more than 20 feet (6 meters) away. So, the controllers back on Earth won’t need to make as many small adjustments to Mars 2020’s location just to scan a new sample.
In the next few weeks, JPL engineers will install the Mars 2020 Sample Caching System. That apparatus will use 17 separate motors to scoop up samples of Martian soil to store inside the rover. There are vague plans to one day send a follow-up mission to collect those samples and return them to Earth.
NASA plans to launch Mars 2020 next summer — it will have a real name by then. Upon reaching Mars in February 2021, the rover will land in Jezero crater with a rocket sled almost identical to Curiosity’s. Once on the surface, Mars 2020 will be able to search for biosignatures that would go unnoticed by Curiosity. NASA plans for a mission at least one Martian year in duration (just shy of two Earth years). If it’s anything like Curiosity, it’ll operate much longer.
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