In July, the long-awaited launch of the rover developed by the US space agency may take place. Let's take a look at what the new rover is and why this program is so important for Mars exploration.
The Martian Chronicles
To understand the meaning of a future mission, one must first answer a seemingly simple question: what is Mars? First of all, it is the fourth most distant from the Sun and the seventh largest planet in our system. Of all the other planets in the system, it is the most similar to Earth.
However, there is no need to go to extremes and become hostage to illusions. Despite the semi-fantastic ideas about moving people to Mars, you need to understand that the Red Planet is an icy radioactive desert. The average surface temperature of Mars is minus 63 ° C. The background radiation there is about 22 millirad a day, which is about 13 times higher than the average level in developed countries. And the amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the Red Planet is 43% of that of the Earth. And this is only part of the difficulty.
The famous Russian popularizer of astronautics, space exploration enthusiast, blogger and journalist Vitaly Egorov compared Mars to … Norilsk, where the temperature can drop to minus 60 ° C. Moreover, this comparison is clearly not in favor of the Red Planet. “Norilsk has only one advantage over any alien city - it is needed,” says Yegorov. Let us recall that there is a mining and metallurgical complex - a city-forming enterprise, as they liked to say in the Soviet years. There are resources on Mars too. For example, there may be large reserves of non-ferrous and precious metals. At the same time, the cost of their extraction and transportation to Earth will be such that it is too early to think about it.
It is much more important for modern earthlings to understand exactly how Mars appeared, whether there was life on it (and is there?) And what influence the Red Planet had and continues to have on our home world - Earth. Many naively believe that an expedition consisting of several astronauts will help answer all these questions. In fact, this is not the case. The limitations of the human body have not gone away with the development of technology. And it is unlikely that now people will be able to stay on Mars much longer than American astronauts on the Moon in their time. In addition, it must be taken into account that in the case of a manned spacecraft flight, a significant part of the load will be made up of life support systems. But all this will not play a role when it comes to an automatic mission: it does not matter if we are talking about an orbital probe or a large rover.
There is no "Opportunity", but there is "Curiosity"
For all the years of studying Mars, many different vehicles have visited it, which we will not list. The firstborn here were the Americans with their Mariner-4, which in 1964 carried out the first flyby survey of the planet and received the first pictures. There are currently six artificial satellites in Mars orbit: Trace Gas Orbiter, Mars Orbiter Mission, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Mars Express.
American vehicles Curiosity and InSight continue their difficult missions directly on the planet's surface. But launched in 2003, the rover Opportunity (translated from English - "opportunity") failed due to a dust storm. And on February 13, 2019, NASA officially announced the completion of the mission. For the entire time of work, he walked more than 45 thousand meters, collecting countless amounts of information that researchers will analyze for more than one year. Among the main achievements of the mission is proof of the presence of water activity on Mars in the past. Moreover, this water was fresh and suitable for the existence of living organisms in it.
Opportunity's conditional successor - Curiosity (translated from English - "curiosity") - differs from it in size. And, of course, opportunities. Opportunity weighs 185 kilograms, while Curiosity weighs 899. The height is a more modern rover with a very tall man.
On February 9, 2013, Curiosity, which began the first ever drilling on the surface of Mars, produced a solid rock sample. Subsequent analysis showed traces of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon. In general, in just the first 100 days of operation, Curiosity carried out 120 measurements. In the future, we can expect a lot of new discoveries that - without exaggeration - can change our understanding of Mars. However, the newest rover, dubbed Mars 2020, will have even more options.
Mars 2020 Rover Mission
Mars 2020 will be one of the largest rovers and the most technologically advanced rover of its kind in history. Its mass is 1050 kilograms. The six-wheeled science lab is about the size of a small car. Its length is about three meters excluding the mechanical manipulator arm, width - 2.7 meters, height - 2.2 meters. Each wheel has a diameter of 52.5 cm and is made of aluminum with 48 lugs for increased flotation. The rods and levers of the suspension system are made of titanium for greater strength. Each wheel was equipped with a separate motor, and the front and last pair were equipped with a steering system so that the Mars 2020 can rotate 360 degrees without moving from place. The capabilities of the device allow it to move along the surface with an inclination of up to 45 degrees, but scientists will still try to avoid such risky operations.
During the development, the engineers decided to borrow units and parts from Curiosity, but one should not think that the devices are identical. This is not true. Note also that, in addition to the Americans, engineers from France, Norway and Spain applied their mind and knowledge to the creation of the apparatus. Well, indirectly, a good half of the world was involved in the work on Mars 2020, although, of course, its creation would have been impossible without funding from the US authorities.
We will remind, back in 2017, NASA calculated that the cost of building a new rover will exceed two billion dollars. That is, it is one of the most expensive modern space research projects. True, its price pales in comparison with the cost of "construction of the century" in the form of the James Webb telescope, the price of which, we recall, has long exceeded the $ 10 billion mark. By the way, this is a good illustration of the thesis that only a few countries can afford to have full-fledged space research programs.
A bit of history about Mars 2020 itself. The US Space Agency announced its new concept in 2012: the design of the device is based on solutions previously tested on Curiosity. Already in 2014, NASA experts chose the optimal option in their understanding from dozens of proposals, clearly formulating the arsenal of scientific instruments of the rover. It was chosen so as to best meet the requirements of studying the possible habitability of the Red Planet in the past.
The goals and objectives for the future "conqueror of Mars" can be formulated as follows:
- search for signs of life on the Red Planet in the past;
- collection of samples of rocks and soil for their further research;
- study of the possibility of sending the first people to Mars.
While everything is generally clear with the first two positions, the third point can rightly raise a number of questions. In particular, how exactly will an unmanned mission help people survive on the Red Planet? After all, it does not imply applied biological experiments. In fact, Mars 2020 can play a big role, because scientists, among other things, intend to study in detail the work of the Terrain Relative Navigation system, which will analyze the terrain, helping not to crash when descending to the surface. Also, experts will study the operation of the experimental Moxie system, which produces oxygen.
These are, of course, only preliminary plans, and during the expedition (depending on the working conditions and technical capabilities) they may change more than once, albeit not radically. Recall that as of July 2019, engineers were just building a spacecraft.
Not so long ago, NASA specialists installed a SuperCam multipurpose camera and a two-meter robotic arm on it, with which the rover will perform many different operations. The robotic arm includes five electric motors and five elements connected by "joints". At the end of the manipulator there are high-definition cameras, various research instruments, as well as a mechanism and system for collecting soil.
The device will operate in the ancient 45-kilometer crater Jezero, located in the west of the Isis Plain, where in the past there was a river delta. The crater diameter is about 49 kilometers. Scientists believe that the rover will be able to find about five different types of rocks here. This is important because, for example, carbonates can preserve evidence for the existence of life on Mars in ancient times. Previously, clay minerals were found in the crater: clay is formed in the presence of water, so water has probably been present in this area for a long time. Cracks on the surface in the form of polygons are also cited as proof: such surface shapes appear when the clay dries. In general, the Plain of Isis is a gigantic lowland of a rounded shape in the equatorial part of the Eastern Hemisphere of the Red Planet, which adjoins the Plain of Elysia in the north, and the Plain of Utopia in the northwest.
The new rover will be a real "traveling film studio". There are 23 cameras on board: all of them, of course, have different purposes. With the help of six cameras, the rover will film its landing, and another one is designed to guide the device during its descent to the surface of the Red Planet. One of the cameras was placed inside the rover: it will be used to study the collected samples. Progress, generally speaking, is significant: especially when compared with earlier rovers.
Curiosity uses 1-megapixel monochrome modules to navigate and detect obstacles in its path. A similar set of cameras on the new rover shoots in color at a maximum resolution of 20 megapixels. With wide-angle optics, you can take panoramic photos without stitching different images together. And the new stabilization system will allow the rover to survey in motion.
In addition, unlike previous vehicles, Mars 2020 will receive a companion in the person of Mars Helicopter. This is a robotic helicopter designed to study possible targets on the surface of the Red Planet for subsequent movements of Mars 2020. The concept is based on coaxial propellers rotating in opposite directions, the diameter of which exceeds one meter. The helicopter will receive two high-resolution cameras for navigation, landing and surface exploration.
The reconnaissance will be recharged using solar panels. The aircraft weighs 1.8 kilograms and has a range of 600 meters. “We hope that helicopters will make new ways of exploring Mars a reality,” said Howard Grip, head of helicopter flight control and aerodynamics. In his opinion, in the future, more advanced versions of Martian helicopters will be able to explore the Red Planet in autonomous mode, without being tied to rovers. This, no doubt, will allow a completely new look at many aspects and understand the processes and phenomena that take place on Mars.
In addition to the helicopter, the key components of Mars 2020 will include:
- Mastcam-Z. A complex that includes two cameras with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging and a variable focal length lens. The device, among other things, is designed to analyze the mineralogical composition of soils;
- Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). A device for X-ray fluorescence analysis is the study of a substance in order to clarify its elemental composition. The complex has a thermal imager;
- SuperCam.A device for studying the chemical and mineralogical composition of the soil. Its capabilities make it possible to identify organic compounds in rocks and regolith at a distance;
- Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC). This tool should analyze ultraviolet light to detect organic matter. It will be the first ever ultraviolet spectrometer delivered to the surface of Mars;
- Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration (Rimfax). Radar (georadar) designed to investigate Martian geology;
- Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (Meda). Sensors measuring pressure, humidity, wind and temperature;
- Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (Moxie). This device was created to conduct an experiment on the production of oxygen in the conditions of Mars.
Let's note one more important thing: each new device sent to the Red Planet not only provides new opportunities for research, but also allows you to develop a new one and supplement the existing methods of communication. In particular, we are talking about building a kind of "interplanetary Internet". The idea has long been tested on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
The Mars 2020 launch date was previously selected in the summer of 2020, and the landing is scheduled for 2021. The launch vehicle will be the American Atlas 5 rocket, which has repeatedly proven its reliability. Launch site - Cape Canaveral, launch pad SLC-41.
The rover sends data to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and it, in turn, working as a repeater, sends data to Earth. As it turned out, such a system can transfer up to 100 megabits per Martian day. For the 2020 mission, they plan to expand the capacity: it is not known exactly what characteristics it will have, however, there is no doubt that scientists will be able to receive huge amounts of data in a relatively short time.
Today, the only difficulty is in the timing: will NASA engineers have time to invest in the previously established time frame, preparing the device for launch in July this year? Here you can recall the aforementioned James Webb telescope, which, we recall, they wanted to launch back in 2007 and which still has uncertain prospects (although now it seems like the date has been finally determined - 2021). However, let's take the liberty of declaring that, most likely, Mars 2020 will not become Mars 2025 or Mars 2027. So the first results of the rover will soon become available to the public. And all kinds of ufologists will, as before, look for "traces of the yeti" and "remains of the ancient Egyptian civilization" in the images of both a near and distant planet.