NASA’s highly anticipated Mars 2020 — which will look for signs of ancient or current alien life on the red planet — will launch into space in July of 2020. The spaceflight company responsible for getting the little dude up into space and en route to Mars will be United Launch Services LLC (ULA), NASA announced Thursday.

ULA will aim to conduct the launch via an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Mars 2020 will be tasked with a very wide array of different research, including geological investigations, scanning the surface for signs of potential habitability, and digging into the ground for evidence of ancient Martian life. 

The most exciting part about Mars 2020 is that it will acquire samples of the red planet’s rocks to potentially bring back to Earth on a future mission.

Although Mars 2020 will be a profound upgrade to Curiosity, the latter will still be used to investigate other parts of the Martian landscape for as long as it stays operational. 

The total cost to launch Mars 2020 will be about $243 million, which includes the launch services contract awarded to ULA. The company has quietly accrued a string of commercial spaceflight successes in the last few years — including the launch of the Delta IV Heavy, the world’s largest rocket so far. That achievement was likely a significant boost for the company’s chances to earn the Mars 2020 contract.



Update: 12.01.2017


Seeking Signs of Life and More: NASA's Mars 2020 Mission 

The next Mars rover will be able to land near rugged terrain, giving scientists access to diverse landscapes. It will also cache core samples, a first step in the quest to return samples to Earth.

By  and K. H. Williford 

NASA recently confirmed that it plans to fly to Mars in 2020, sending the fifth in a series of increasingly ambitious rovers to investigate the Red Planet. The specific landing site hasn’t been chosen yet, but the Mars 2020 mission will explore one of several possible paleoenvironments older than 3.5 billion years that might once have been conducive to microbial life.

The rover will assess the geology of the landing site and analyze surface targets for signs of ancient life using imaging, organic and inorganic geochemistry, and mineralogy. Notably, the rover, also called Mars 2020, will also be the first to select, collect, and cache a suite of samples from another planet for possible future return to Earth, fulfilling the vision of the most recent planetary science decadal survey to take the first step toward Mars Sample Return [National Research Council, 2011].

A Shift in Strategy


Previous rovers used sophisticated analytic instruments and prepared rock and soil specimens for analysis on board the rover itself. Mars 2020, however, will be the first rover tasked with detailed exploration of the surface to support the collection of a large, high-value sample suite designated for possible later study in laboratories back on Earth.


Conceptually, Mars 2020 marks a transition from missions in which sampling guided exploration to one where exploration guides sampling. In other words, the rover’s scientific instruments will observe the surrounding terrain and provide the critical context for choosing where samples will be collected. Ultimately, this context will also be used to interpret the samples. This evolution is familiar on Earth, where initial field observations and limited sampling in the service of geologic mapping lead to hypotheses that are eventually tested through focused sample collection and laboratory analysis.

Instruments on Board

The Mars 2020 rover has new scientific instruments and a sampling and caching system for possible sample return to Earth.
Fig. 1. The Mars 2020 rover closely follows the design of Curiosity, but it has new scientific instruments and a sampling and caching system for the drilling and storage of samples for possible return to Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The architecture of this mission closely follows the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosity rover, but Mars 2020 will be modified with new scientific instruments and capabilities that allow more intensive and efficient use of the rover (Figure 1).

Two instruments will be mounted on the rover mast: Mastcam-Z, a high-resolution, color stereo zoom camera, and SuperCam, a multifaceted instrument that collects spectroscopic data using visible–near-infrared (Vis-NIR), Raman, and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) techniques. SuperCam will analyze data from rock and regolith materials that may be several meters away from the rover to characterize their texture, mineralogy, and chemistry.

Two instruments on the robotic arm will permit researchers to study rock surfaces with unprecedented spatial resolution (features as small as about 100 micrometers). The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) will use X-ray fluorescence to map elemental composition, whereas Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) will use deep-UV Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy to map the molecular chemistry of organic matter and select mineral classes. SHERLOC also includes a high-resolution color microscopic imager.

The rover will be able to assess subsurface geologic structure using a ground-penetrating radar instrument called Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX). The rover will characterize environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity, and winds, using the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will demonstrate a critical technology for human exploration of Mars by converting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen as a potential source of rocket propellant.

Rover Hits the Ground Running


In addition to the new scientific instruments, Mars 2020 builds on the innovative MSL “sky crane” entry, descent, and landing system. The sky crane lowers the rover to the surface from a rocket-powered descent stage rather than using air bags to provide a soft landing. New onboard navigational capabilities will enable the rover to land closer to regions with abundant rock outcroppings, which are scientifically desirable but potentially hazardous for landing. The rover will also have stronger wheels to reduce the puncture problems that plague the Curiosity rover.


New onboard software provides the rover with more autonomy for driving and for science investigations. New Earth-based tools and practices will enable the operations team to assess results and develop the next planning cycle over a much shorter timeline.

Studying the Samples

Mars 2020 will carry an entirely new subsystem to collect and prepare samples. As studies of lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions demonstrated, specimens brought back from Mars would be analyzed for an extraordinary diversity of purposes. Notable examples include igneous and sedimentary petrology, geochemistry, geochronology, and astrobiology.

Samples brought back to Earth would also help researchers assess hazards associated with possible human exploration of Mars. And, of course, the samples would be analyzed for the presence of current life on Mars.

Readying samples for such study creates demanding requirements on this subsystem (Table 1). These requirements and their implementation are informed by previous studies [e.g., McLennan et al., 2012; Summons et al., 2014], as well as by the mission’s Returned Sample Science Board. Notable among these requirements are capabilities to ensure that contamination from Earth, brought over by the spacecraft,  is limited to less than 10 parts per billion of total organic carbon and statistically less than one viable Earth organism in each of the returned samples.

Table 1. Requirements for the Samples to Be Prepared for Caching by the Mars 2020 Mission
Category Requirement
Number of samples at least 31
Sample mass, each 10- to 15-gram cylindrical cores
Contamination limits  
        Inorganic limits on 21 key geochemical elements based on Martian meteorite concentrations
        Organic <10 parts per billion total organic carbon


<1 part per billion of 10 critical marker compounds