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NASA finalizes next Mars rover, inching closer to 2020 launch

Almost four years after NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the space agency has decided to move forward with the final design and construction of its next rover to explore the Red Planet. For now dubbed simply the Mars 2020 rover, the machine will help NASA scientists investigate Martian surface rocks for signs of prior life, collect samples, and store them for recovery by missions in the future.

“The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth,” Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a NASA press release. “This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA’s Journey to Mars — to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet.”

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The Mars 2020 rover will follow the design of Curiosity, but it will be packed with updated instruments and backed by a team of scientists who’ve been around a Martian dune or two. The new rover will be equipped with a coring drill to collect specimens and sample tubes for storage. Some 30 samples tubes will be left around the Red Planet for future collection. On Earth, the samples may be analyzed for signs of life and to detect potential health hazards for future manned missions to Mars.

NASA is also trying to bring the Mars mission closer to those on Earth by equipping the rover with a microphone and range of cameras to record the images and sounds of its entry.

“Nobody has ever seen what a parachute looks like as it is opening in the Martian atmosphere,” JPL’s David Gruel, assistant flight system manager for the Mars 2020 mission, said in the press release. “So this will provide valuable engineering information.”

“This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time, and it could also provide useful engineering information,” added Mars 2020 deputy project manager Matt Wallace of JPL.

With this plan to progress, the Mars 2020 mission passes it’s third milestone into Phase C of development, which includes design and fabrication. With Phase C and Phase D (system assembly) complete, the mission will be on track to launch in the summer of 2020.