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Busy Road to Mars Opens in 2020
NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission will use the "sky crane" system that landed the agency's Curiosity rover on the Red Planet in August 2012.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Come July 2020, a half-dozen rockets from around the world will be preparing to launch an armada of rovers, landers, and orbiters to Mars in a multi-pronged attempt to learn if Earth's neighbor has or ever had life, and to test technologies for eventual human visits.

The flurry of launches is meant to seize on a optimal 20-day launch window that opens about every 26 months when Earth and Mars are favorably aligned.

The Mars party includes longtime planetary explorers NASA and the European Space Agency, both of which are sending sophisticated rovers to investigate life on the Red Planet. NASA's Mars 2020 rover will continue work currently being undertaken by the Curiosity rover, which has been looking for habitable environments in Mars' Gale Crater since its arrival in August 2012.

Like Curiosity, the as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover will be about the size of small car. It will search for evidence of life and collect samples for an eventual return to Earth for analysis. The rover is due to launch in July 2020 and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.

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"Missing the 2020 launch window would result in significant additional costs related to overhead, stand-by work force, replacement of degraded parts and components, and storage while waiting for the next launch opportunity," says a NASA report on the Mars 2020 project that was released in January.

Europe's ExoMars rover is taking a more direct approach to look for life. The ExoMars rover will be able to drill up to about 6.5 feet, or two meters, beneath the planet's surface and look for microbial activity. The rover is expected to launch aboard a Russian Proton rocket in August 2020 and arrive at Mars eight months later.

The NASA and European Space Agency missions to Mars will be joined by a spacecraft from India as a follow-on to its ongoing Mars Orbiter Mission technology demonstration. France is partnering with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for the mission, which may include a rover as well.

Also hitting the interplanetary highway in 2020 are a trio of first-time Mars explorers, including an unprecedented venture by a private company to reach the Red Planet.

Elon Musk's SpaceX, which already has shaken up the aerospace industry with low-cost pricing and rockets that fly back to Earth for reuse, had planned to launch an unmanned capsule to Mars during the 2018 launch window. However, having just resumed flights in January following an accident, and with much work ahead on a space taxi for NASA, an upgraded rocket motor and the debut flight of a heavy-lift booster, company president Gwynne Shotwell said last month that the Mars mission is being retargeted for the 2020 opening.

SpaceX's Red Dragon mission will join Mars newcomers China, which is developing an orbiter, lander and small rover, and the United Arab Emirates, which is developing a Mars weather satellite called Hope.

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NASA hopes to parlay the simultaneous targeting of Mars by various players into a productive scientific partnerships, but the clock is ticking.

The current network of US rovers and orbiters working at Mars is aging. By the time the new spacecraft arrive in 2021 Curiosity won't have enough power to roam, and NASA's two imaging and communications orbiters will likely "not be capable," said NASA's Mars exploration program director Jim Watzin.

"Sometimes the great success that we've had at Mars … has obscured the fact that these assets have a finite life," Watzin said at a recent Mars science planning meeting. "It becomes pretty apparent that the era we've all known … comes to an end at the end of the decade."

Or maybe a new beginning.

Photo: A Proton-M rocket carrying ExoMars 2016 spacecraft blasts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

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Originally published on Seeker.