NASA's rover Curiosity will soon have a doppelganger joining it on the ruddy Martian landscape.

As part of the Mars 2020 mission, the next-generation rover will look a LOT like the current-generation rover that's presently into its fourth year exploring the bedrock of Gale Crater and slopes of Mount Sharp.

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Scheduled to launch in the summer of 2020 and land on the Red Planet in February 2021, the purpose of this souped-up "Curiosity 2.0" is clear: to seek out evidence of past microbial life, select and store Mars rocks for a possible future sample return mission and conduct investigations into harnessing Mars' natural resources for a future human mission.

"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," said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., in a statement.

On Friday, the space agency announced that the mission had just passed a critical design phase, so now construction can begin. As Curiosity has been a resounding success, many of the techniques -- and, indeed, hardware -- developed for the 2012 mission will be used for Mars 2020. These factors lower the risk associated with landing on Mars and drastically reduces the development time and, of course, cost.

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"Since Mars 2020 is leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, a significant amount of the mission's heritage components have already been built during Phases A and B," said George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "With the (Key Decision Point) to enter Phase C completed, the project is proceeding with final design and construction of the new systems, as well as the rest of the heritage elements for the mission."

So this rover will be based on Curiosity, but refined even further. For example, during entry, descent and landing, Curiosity was able to autonomously land in a very small area after using the "skycrane" maneuver, but the Mars 2020 mission will have significant enhancements to make landing even more precise, giving the rover the power to analyze images from downward-facing cameras determine hazardous terrain and avoid dangers.

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"As it is descending, the spacecraft can tell whether it is headed for one of the unsafe zones and divert to safe ground nearby," said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "With this capability, we can now consider landing areas with unsafe zones that previously would have disqualified the whole area. Also, we can land closer to a specific science destination, for less driving after landing."

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On board the rover, a sophisticated suite of instrumentation will be carried, including a new subsystem that will drill out rock samples, prepare them for storage and then cache them on board for a possible sample return mission. Collecting samples and returning them to Earth would allow scientists to thoroughly analyze the Martian material to look for past life and better understand the chemicals they contain that could pose a risk to future Mars astronauts.

The rover's robotic arm will also carry two instruments with the explicit purpose of seeking out evidence of past life and selecting where the rover should drill and attain samples. Sensors will be mounted to the rover's mast to assess weather and atmospheric dust conditions and a ground-penetrating radar will be able to study the geology under the rover.


NASA/JPL-Caltech

Also of interest is a new suite of cameras and a microphone that will record the sights and sound of entering into the Martian atmosphere during entry, descent and landing. Though microphones have been included in past missions, such as NASA's 2008 Phoenix mission, this will be the first time one has actually been used on the Martian surface. (The Phoenix microphone was never turned on because of fears of an electrical problem.)

"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," said Mars 2020 Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace of JPL.

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But of all the instrumentation being built for Mars 2020, the MOXIE payload will be unique. When we do (eventually) land humans on Mars, there's a deep appreciation that we'll need to harness as much of Mars' natural resources as possible, and this includes finding water sources and processing atmospheric gases to extract oxygen. On Earth, our atmosphere contains around 21 percent oxygen. Mars' thin atmosphere, however, contains less than 0.15% oxygen. Obviously this is a problem; we need oxygen to breathe and oxygen for fuel, there's simply too little in Mars' atmosphere.

Fortunately for us, Mars' atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide. On Earth, high quantities of atmospheric CO2 is really bad news as it's a potent greenhouse gas, but for future Mars astronauts it will be a critical resource, and MOXIE will demonstrate why. The on-board laboratory will suck in atmsopheric CO2 and, through electrochemical processes, split it up into carbon monoxide (CO) and molecular oxygen (O2). The oxygen will then be analyzed for purity before being vented back out into the atmosphere. Should this demonstration of "In-Situ Resource Utilization" (ISRU) be successful, this will be a huge step forward to eventually seeing boot prints on Mars.

So even though we currently have two NASA rovers still exploring Mars, and the European ExoMars rover is planned for 2018, we can look forward to a Curiosity lookalike in four years time that will pick up samples, hunt down the chemistry of past life, listen to the sounds of Mars and even cook up oxygen from the rarefied Martian atmosphere. Most impressive.