Research Blog 1: Unmanned Ground Vehicles

In 2020, the combined forces of NASA JPL, Lockheed Martin and many other subcontractors, will catch a ride on a United Launch Alliance rocket to send the next rover in the Mars Exploration Program (MEP) to the red planet. The MEP began in 1964 with the launch of the first Mars missions with Mariner 3 and 4. The first lander, Viking, arrived in 1976 and the first rover, Pathfinder-Sojourner landed in 1996. (Greicius, 2015) The intent of the MEP is to eventually send a manned mission to Mars and possibly begin a settlement.

For the 2020 rover, NASA has decided to recycle the platform of the car-sized rover named Curiosity, which landed and began scientific research in 2012 but with a modification to the collection arm. (Leone, 2015) The Curiosity rover has proven to be a robust rover traveling over soft and rocky terrain, collecting rock core samples, sending photos and videos back to Earth and even gaining a social media following. Curiosity was designed with the expectation of just over one Earth year of active use on Mars, however the unexpected regularity of winds on the Martian surface have continued to removed dust from the solar panels, extending the life of the rover to a current three years and still going strong. (Boykins, 2015)

Curiosity is a compact science laboratory with a mission to determine if Mars ever had the environment to support life. The technology employed by the rover is the result of years of testing, and includes robust metal wheels with cross grids to allow for traction in the sands and grip over rocks. The wheels have proven to be unexpectedly successful as the rover encountered sharp rocks that punched holes in the metal. The holes were discovered to actually improve Curiosity’s traction rather than decrease the integrity as expected. (Boykins, 2015) Curiosity’s “knees” are designed to handle the harsh dusty environment and maintain flexibility over unpredictable terrain. Lightweight radioisotope heater units are employed to maintain instrument operating temperatures within the body of the rover. Cameras using both available light and augmented lighting have given the first true color views of the Martian landscape as well as a blue sunset seen through a different atmosphere. (Boykins, 2015) The effort of testing and recertifying the confirmed success of the Curiosity platform, combined with the completion of the Mars 2020 Final Environmental Impact Survey, (Mars, 2014) have resulted in maintaining the same platform for the Mars 2020 rover. In the interest of continuing the program and building on what is known, I agree with the findings of the survey.

The one change to the arm, is the result of a change in mission. After continued discussion, NASA approved a plan that would change a part of the mission for the 2020 rover. The Mars 2020 rover originally was expected to operate similar to Curiosity collecting samples of possible astro-archeological and biological interest and store those samples on board to be collected by a future Mars mission. This would require compensating for increased weight and time spent on careful consideration before determining whether to collect a sample, (Leone, 2015). However, the new thought is to have the Mars 2020 rover collect samples and deposit them in specific areas along the route. This would allow for the rover to continue without the growing weight, collect more samples and the best option for scientific exploration is the ability to add more capability to the arm, (Leone, 2015)

There have been times where Curiosity has had need of a stronger arm, or a second arm as it collects samples on its journey to Mount Sharp, (Boykins, 2015). However, because the original design of Curiosity intended to keep the samples collected within its onboard storage, weight consideration was a factor during build. The change to the arm of the Mars 2020 rover, will allow for more ability and strength. This is exciting. More information can be retrieved from the Martian surface. The ability to take deeper core samples will increase the scientific data that is collected. Additionally, the limit on the number of samples taken would virtually be eliminated as “piles of samples” could be left behind. (Leone, 2015)

I am in agreement with the findings that lean towards the Mars 2020 rover “dropping” samples as it goes for future collection. It will allow for a more robust rover than Curiosity and will improve the ability to gain more information for future unmanned science on other planets prior to manned missions. (Leone, 2015)

REFERENCES

Boykins, K. (Speaker) (2015, January 26). The Curious Life of a Mars Rover – Nat Geo Live. Lecture conducted from National Geographic Live, Washington, D. C., Retrieved August 20, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zpojhD4hpI

Greicius, T. (Ed.). (2015, July 30). Mars Exploration Past Missions. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mars/missions/index-past.htm

Leone, D. (2015, June 26). A Mars 2020 Rover that Drops its Samples as it Goes is Gaining Grounding. Retrieved August 22, 2015, from http://spacenews.com/its-looking-more-likely-nasas-mars-2020-rover-will-drop-its-samples-as-it-goes/

Mars 2020 Final Environmental Impact Survey. (2014).

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