At first blush, the Mars rover that NASA hopes to launch in 2020 is a near twin to Curiosity, which is now exploring the Red Planet. It will use the same chassis and will be delivered to the surface with the same “sky crane” system. But today’s announcement of the seven instruments that will ride on the new rover’s payload makes it clear that the Mars 2020 rover will be much leaner.
The numbers speak for themselves: Curiosity supports a payload of 75 kilograms built at a cost of about $180 million; the Mars 2020 rover payload will weigh 40 kilograms and cost $130 million. The reductions are in part to make room for rock samples to be stashed for eventual return to Earth. Being lean will also keep the rover free of complicated, time-consuming instruments that could hamper it from assembling a diverse cache of rocks in just a few short years.
Some of the instruments offer incremental advances over their counterparts on Curiosity. For example, the Mastcam-Z will have a zoom lens, which will allow researchers to build 3D movies (something that MastCam principal investigator Mike Malin wanted to do with filmmaker James Cameron on Curiosity before that capability was descoped). More importantly, the zoom camera will allow the rover to look out farther into a planned drive and identify hazards—permitting longer and more autonomous daily traverses. And some of the instruments, such as a Norwegian-built ground-penetrating radar, are completely new.