The two most exciting Mars missions coming in 2020

Roughly every 26 months Earth and Mars align in such a way as to allow a low-energy, and therefore low-cost, transfer between the two terrestrial bodies. It is no surprise then, that in 2020 when this alignment happens once again, that space agencies around the world are queuing up to utilise this favorable low-energy highway for the advancement of science. Read on for the top two Mars missions coming in 2020!

NASA's Mars2020

NASA is an old hand at landing complex machines on Mars. They've landed four rovers on the Red Planet: Sojourner (landed 1997), Spirit (2004), Opportunity (2004) and Curiousity (2012); not to mention last year's InSight lander which is currently probing Mar's interior through seismology.

The NASA Mars2020 rover will be the latest addition to America's growing fleet of robotic planet explorers.

NASA's Mars2020 rover. Credit: NASA/JPL

As you can see, the rover is based on the Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a Curiousity) design. Its main aims will be the usual science you'd expect on another rocky planet: investigating Mar's astrobiological and geological history, searching for signs of life and attempting to characterise the likelihood of past habitability by searching for biosignatures within geological materials.

However, there are a few additions that make this mission truly unique.

1. The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE)

MOXIE is the first step towards realising a sustainable, affordable human colony on Mars.

Carbon dioxide makes up ~96% of the atmosphere on Mars. Diatomic free oxygen is only about 0.13%, compared to 21% in Earth's atmosphere. This, coupled with the extremely low pressures on Mars, make the planet completely inhospitable for humans.

MOXIE, a payload design by CalTech, is an experiment with one goal: to use this carbon dioxide rich atmosphere to create pure, breathable oxygen.

It works essentially like a reverse fuel cell - the experiment collects CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, then electrochemically separates the molecules into O2 and CO. During this technological demonstrations the O2 will be analyzed for purity before being vented back out to the Mars atmosphere along with the CO and other exhaust products but in the future, the O2 will be stored. Scientists believe that they will be able to generate 22 g of oxygen per hour with >99.6% purity over 50 sols. If this wasn't exciting enough, the MOXIE experiment is designed to be scalable by 100 times!

This means that we could land a MOXIE100' along with a simple radioisotope thermoelectric generator, a device that utilises radioactive decay to generate electrical power. Thus it is possible to generate pure oxygen for use in Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) or as an oxidiser for rocket fuel several years before we ever send humans to Mars! Like I said, MOXIE is the first step towards realising a human colony on Mars.

2. A Martian Helicopter

The Jet Propulsion Lab's (JPL) 'Mars Helicopter Scout' (MHS) does exactly what it says on the box. It's a helicopter, on Mars, that will be used to scout locations for its mother ship - the Mars2020 rover.

NASA hopes to understand whether the MHS can fly safely and provide better mapping and guidance to the mission control team that would allow more efficient, safer traverses for the rover. This would include marking potential hazards in advance as well as identifying points of scientific interest for the rover to go and investigate.

It weighs just 1.8 kg and NASA hopes it will fly up to 5 times throughout its 30-day test drive. This is no easy feat, as due to the distance between Mars and Earth (an average of 150 million miles) it can take a light signal up to 20 minutes to travel between the planets meaning that real-time flight control is not possible. For more about the Mars Helicopter, take a look at NASA's JPL's video below.

3. Mars Sample Return

On top of everything else, the Mars2020 rover is a precursor to a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, currently under study by both NASA and the European Space Agency. As the Mars2020 rover explores the surface of the Red Planet it will store geological samples in airtight containers, and leave them along its route. The current plan is that in the future another rover will be utilised to retrieve these sample containers, return them to an ascent module which will blast them into orbit to rendezvous with a planetary return vehicle that will then bring the samples back and safely land them on Earth.

Check out this great video from ESA about the mission.

For the first time in human history, scientists will able to analyse in their labs samples taken deliberately and carefully from the surface of another planet.

ESA's ExoMars2020

Last week ESA announced the results of a global public competition to name the first ever European Mars rover - Rosalind Franklin. The Rosalind rover, built in the UK by Airbus, will launch on a Russian Proton rocket around the same time as NASA's rover sometime in July 2020.

Its main aim is to search for evidence of past or present microscopic life on Mars.

The Rosalind Franklin Rover. Credit: ESA/Airbus.

The ExoMars descent module, provided by the Russian Federation Space Agency, Roscomos, will enter the martian atmosphere travelling at approximately 20 000 km/h. The vehicle will be slowed using a series of thermal shielding, aerobraking, drogue parachutes, reverse thrusters and a damping system allowing for a soft touchdown on the Red Planet.

Due to inaccuracies in our understanding of the atmosphere on Mars, coupled with the use of parachutes, the designated landing ellipse for the rover is 104km long by 19km wide.

Once on the surface, a final checkout will be performed before the rover can begin its mission. Rosalind will carry a series of instruments including:

  • Panoramic Camera System (PanCam) designed to digitally map the Martian landscape,

  • Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer for highly sensitive organic molecule sampling,

  • MicrOmega-IR infrared hyperspectral microscope for geological sampling,

  • Raman Laser Spectrometer (RLS) to help identify organic compounds through water process analysis,

  • (Water Ice and Subsurface Deposit Information On Mars (WISDOM) ground-penetrating radar,

  • Mars Multispectral Imager for Subsurface Studies (Ma-MISS) infrared spectrometer,

  • Close-Up Imager (CLUPI) for imaging rockets with submillimeter resolution,

  • ADRON-RM is a neutron spectrometer to search for subsurface water ice and hydrated minerals,

  • and a Core drill.

Due to the extremely harsh radiation conditions on Mars, the search for life must be brought below the surface. The core drill is designed to extract samples down to a maximum of two meters. Once collected in the drill's auger, the sample will be delivered to the rover’s internal laboratory, which will utilise the rover's instrument suite to try and identify organic substances.

The rover is expected to travel several kilometres during its mission and sample regions at various locations on the Martian surface.

Possible scouting micro rover

A consortium of European countries is currently studying the possibility of including a mini rover in the ExoMars mission.

Disaster struck NASA's Mars rover Spirit when it got permanently stuck in soft sand in 2009. To avoid a similar situation, the engineers behind this study are assessing the inclusion of a scouting rover in order to determine safer trajectories for the Rosalind rover mothership - much like NASA's Mars Surface Helicopter idea. According to their paper, both rovers wo