Members of the public were invited to walk the clean-room floor at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on December 27 to glimpse the Mars 2020 rover and speak with experts working on the mission. It was the public’s only opportunity to see the rover from inside the clean room prior to its shipment to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in February.

The Mars 2020 rover is one step closer to having its own name as the competition to name it has entered the home stretch, with NASA culling the field from 28,000 student entries to 155 semifinalists. The public will be able to vote for their favorite of the nine finalist names starting late this month. This public vote will be one factor considered in the selection of the final name, which will be announced in early March. You can find all semifinalists on the Mars 2020 rover naming-contest website.

The Mars 2020 rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. The mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on that planet. It takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself.

The mission is timed for a launch opportunity in July this year when Earth and Mars are in good positions relative to each other for landing on Mars. That is, it takes less power to travel to Mars compared with other times when the two planets are in different positions in their orbits.

To keep mission costs and risks as low as possible, the rover design is based on NASA’s successful Mars Science Laboratory mission architecture, including its Curiosity rover and proven landing system.

This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover on the surface of the Red Planet. Photo: NASA via Wikipedia

The rover is car-sized, about 3 meters long, 2.7 meters wide, and 2.2 meters tall. But at 1,050 kilograms, it weighs less than a compact car. In some sense, the rover parts are similar to what any living creature would need to keep it alive and able to explore.

To maximize its chance of unearthing traces of ancient life, Mars 2020 will land in a long-dried-up delta called Jezero. The site, selected after years of scientific debate, is a crater that was once a 500-meter-deep lake. It was formerly connected to a network of rivers that flowed some 3.5 billion to 3.9 billion years ago. The crater measures just under 48 kilometers across, and experts hope it may have preserved ancient organic molecules.

The Mars 2020 rover, which NASA plans to launch on July 17 and for touchdown on Mars on February 18 next year, will not only search for traces of ancient life, will but pave the way for future human missions. The trip will take about seven months. If all goes according to plan, the rover will come to life in February 2021 in the ancient river delta in the Jezero Crater. Its mission is expected to last two years.

The Mars 2020 rover will feature a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars. Throughout the mission, it will collect soil and rock samples and leave them on the surface for collection by a future Earth-return mission. That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars.

Where the vehicle at the heart of the US$2.5 billion exploration will really stand apart, however, is in its ability to analyze and process samples, then drop them into tubes for pickup by another Mars mission expected to launch in 2026. Samples will be carried inside the rover until they are deposited in individual tubes or in a bunch on the planet’s surface. Only when the samples are returned to Earth will scientists be able to determine whether definitive signs of ancient life are present.

The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. The Mars 2020 rover will help prepare for future human exploration of Mars with a technology for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is 96% carbon dioxide. This demonstration of new technology will help mission planners test ways of using Mars’ natural resources to support human explorers and improve designs for life support, transportation, and other important systems for living and working on Mars.

Though the rover is nearly complete and will be ready to be shipped to Florida in about a month, installing the sample tubes will be one of the final steps as another protection from contamination. It is part of a larger program that includes missions to the moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Charged with returning astronauts to the moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028 through the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.

The ambitions come as a new space race heats up, with Beijing increasingly vying to threaten US dominance. China on December 27 launched a Long March 5 heavy lift rocket in a major step forward for its own planned mission to Mars in July or August this year.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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