Mars 2020: NASA’s Next Red Planet Rover Will Have 23 Eyes

NASA’s forthcoming Mars rover, due to land in 2021, will be armed with an incredible 23 cameras to help it steer and conduct science. That’s six more than the current rover Curiosity carries, the better to share its adventures with scientists stuck back here on Earth.

The Mars 2020 rover is due to launch in July or August of 2020 and is booked to spend almost two years wandering the red planet’s surface, although that stay can be extended just as Opportunity’s and Curiosity’s have been. NASA has been working on its design for a while now, but they just announced the rover’s camera arsenal.

Mars 2020’s mission includes looking for signs of long-lost life and will be hoarding particularly interesting rock and soil samples for a later mission to fetch and bring back to Earth. It will also be looking for resources that could make life on Mars easier for the first human explorers, like water and oxygen.

All of those goals will rely on that suite of cameras NASA will attach to the rover. And if all goes well, those cameras will start recording even before the rover lands, since scientists are hoping to have enough space to sneak four cameras onto the rover and its parachute to document the landing process.

11_01_mars_2020_cameras The Mars 2020 rover will sport 23 different cameras, including those labeled here. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Nailing a gentle landing on Mars without slamming all your expensive equipment onto the surface turns out to be quite a challenge. NASA engineers called the landing window for the Curiosity rover “seven minutes of terror,” and this would be the first time they could watch real footage of the landing. The tape would also give them a better sense of the rover’s new neighborhood and help them decide where it should take its first excursion.

But there are plenty of obstacles on the planet’s surface as well, and that’s where many of the other cameras come into play, helping scientists steer the rover from Earth. Unlike Curiosity’s and Opportunity’s equivalent cameras, Mars 2020’s engineering cameras will take color photographs—which will also be of better quality and cover larger fields of view than previous images. Engineering cameras will point both forward and backward to help keep the rover safe.

A third set of cameras will focus on gathering scientific data. That includes MastCam-Z, an upgrade of a similar camera on Curiosity that can zoom; SuperCam, another upgrade, this time a laser that vaporizes rock to identify its ingredients; PIXL, which photographs with X-rays; SHERLOC, which can study rock texture; and its companion WATSON.

A final camera will be stuck inside the rover itself, watching over the interior compartment, where samples are stored and prepared for later retrieval.

NASA hasn’t yet announced which cameras will be responsible for taking vacation selfies that make us all jealous, but it’s probably safe to assume those photographs will be coming as well.

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