Mars 2020 rover receives upgraded eyesight for tricky skycrane landing

by Chris Gebhardt

When NASA’s next Mars rover – Mars 2020 – arrives at the red planet in four years, it will sport a new and upgraded vision to aide its onboard systems and targeting parameters for the all-important, incredibly technical, and somewhat heart pounding skycrane and winch landing onto the surface of Mars.  The rover is currently set to launch in July 2020 aboard an Atlas V rocket.

New eyes for Mars 2020 rover:

While the Kennedy Space Center continues damage assessment operations following the passage of Hurricane Matthew, NASA’s various other centers continue normal operations for various missions – both current and future – on the agency’s roster.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 09.58.21Chief among these upcoming missions is the Mars 2020 rover, slated to launch between July-September 2020 aboard an Atlas V rocket flying in the 541 configuration from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Like its cousin, Curiosity, which has been exploring Mars since its dramatic and highly successful landing on the red planet in August 2012, the Mars 2020 rover will make use of a rocket powered descent followed by skycrane and winch landing onto the surface of Mars.

Unlike Curiosity, however, the Mars 2020 rover will sport a newly enhanced and upgraded set of eyes – part of a newly upgraded vision system to enhance final target selection as the rover makes its final, critical descent to the surface of the red planet.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 10.01.12According to NASA, the agency first tested the new vision system for Mars 2020 on 9 December 2014 via a Masten Space Systems built rocket in Mojave, California.

Overseen by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the Lander Vision System (LVS) – a prototype vision system to the one that will be used on Mars 2020 – launched 324.9 meters (1,066 feet) into the air and helped guide the rocket to a precise landing at a predesignated target.

In all, the LVS is a camera-based navigation system which photographs the terrain beneath a descending spacecraft and matches it with onboard maps.

This allows the landing spacecraft to detect its location relative to landing hazards such as boulders and outcroppings.

With this system, the Mars 2020 rover will be able to guide itself to a safe landing at its primary target site or divert toward better terrain if there are hazards in its target area.

Specifically, Andrew Johnson, principal investigator for LVS development, said the test built confidence that the vision system will enable Mars 2020 to land safely.

“In the end we showed a closed loop pinpoint landing demo that eliminated any technical concerns with flying the Lander Vision System on Mars 2020.”

Under most previous lander missions to Mars (with Curiosity being an exception), landers have lacked the ability to analyze and react to hazards during descent, and have therefore had to land on preselected, wide open sites with flat terrain.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 10.05.26This has constrained rovers and landers to relatively limited geological features and also severely limited access to areas of high scientific interest.

LVS will now change that, enabling safe landings at scientifically compelling sites at which landing rovers must avoid hazards.

With LVS baselined for inclusion on Mars 2020, engineers are now focused on building the actual LVS that will fly with the rover.

In many ways, while the LVS itself was tested in flight for the first time in December 2014, its predecessor, the Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) system, was employed on the Curiosity rover when it descended to Mars in 2012.

The TRN system allowed Curiosity’s onboard landing systems to evaluate the landing area and make small, relative adjustments so that the rover would not touch down on top of a boulder.

LVS will improve upon that technology and allow Mars 2020 even greater ability to determine its landing location within the given envelope established by NASA.

Mars 2020 rover status:

Pending unforeseen budgetary constraints, Mars 2020 is currently on target to meet the opening of its launch window in July 2020 – a window that extends into September that same year.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 10.11.44The mission’s primary objectives were defined in July 2013, with instrument/payload selection following in July 2014.

With its principal design modeled very closely after Curiosity’s (including its overall landing system), the Mars 2020 rover will make use of leftover and spare equipment from Curiosity as well – including a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator – power source – that was originally built as a backup for Curiosity.

Once at Mars, the new rover will conduct extensive in-situ examinations of the Martian surface – specifically in the realm of astrobiology relevant to the ancient Mars environment, geological processes and history, and – for the first time – a specific emphasis on an assessment of the past habitability and potentiality of examination of past life on Mars.

To this end, Mars 2020 is being designed to “preserve biosignatures within accessible geological materials on Mars” – should such biosignatures be found.

To accomplish these goals, nine scientific instruments have currently been revealed as part of the Mars 2020 rover campaign.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 10.09.19Specifically, the rover will carry the Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) – an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to investigate the elemental composition of Martian surface materials.

Moreover, the Radar Imager for Mars’ subsurface experiment (RIMFAX), is a ground-penetrating radar that will enable the rover to examine targets dozens of meters beneath the Martian surface.

Importantly for future human exploration and colonization efforts of the red planet, the rover will debut an exploration technology investigation called the Mars OXygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE).

MOXIE itself will be tasked with investigating the ability to produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide – a technology that would likely be scaled up for human life support initiatives on Mars.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 10.17.38The created oxygen could make the in-situ creation of rocket fuel for return missions feasible and economically viable for future Martian exploration.

However, perhaps the most innovative payload for Mars 2020 is the Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS), a solar powered helicopter drone that would enable an extended range of visual observations of the surrounding terrain as well as identification of potential up-close investigative targets of interest.

The MHS would be capable of flying for no more than three minutes per day and cover a distance of only 1 km (0.62 miles) daily – though it could greatly improve the mission’s overall scientific return while simultaneously scouting for dangerous, loose sand terrain that could entrap the rover’s wheels.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 10.16.32Additionally, Mars 2020 will carry equipment to monitor the temperature, wind speed, pressure, relative humidity, and dust size and concentration at its location through a system provided by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia.

The rover will also be equipped with spectrometers, onboard chemical and mineral composition analysis units, and microphones to be used during the landing event as well as driving and sample collection processes.

Presently, it is understood that there are eight proposed landing sites under evaluation: Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater, Eberswalde Crater, Holden Crater, Jezero Crater, Mawrth Vallis, the northeastern region of the Syrtis Major Planum, Nili Fossae, and the southwestern region of the Melas Chasma.

As with most previous lander missions, these proposed landing sites will be slowly whittled down over the coming three and a half years, with final landing location selection coming in the months prior to lift off.

(Images: NASA)

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