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NASA spacecraft takes a dip to prep for Mars 2020 rover landing

Putting the brakes on MAVEN will enable better communication between the new rover and Earth.

mars2020rover.jpg

An artist's concept of the Mars 2020 rover on the Red Planet.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

In preparation for the launch of its next Mars rover, NASA is undertaking some quick, interplanetary KonMari.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since September 2014, occasionally dipping into the Martian atmosphere to study how it has changed over time. However, NASA wants to load up the orbiter with an important new job: operating as a communications relay for the Mars 2020 rover mission. To do so, they're going to tidy up its orbit just a little.

"The MAVEN spacecraft has done a phenomenal job teaching us how Mars lost its atmosphere and providing other important scientific insights on the evolution of the Martian climate," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program.   

In the past, MAVEN has been called on to relay signals from NASA's Curiosity rover, but for it to help with the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, NASA is going to move it even closer to the Martian surface, boosting its ability to beam signals home. The new orbit will put MAVEN within 2,800 miles (around 4,500 kilometres) of the surface, increasing the frequency of the spacecraft's orbiter from 5.3 orbits per Earth day to 6.8. That will allow it to check in with any land-based rovers more frequently.

To get into the new orbit, NASA will use the upper Martian atmosphere as a set of brakes, with the atmospheric drag slowing the craft down ever so slightly with each transit around the Red Planet. Dipping to around 78 miles of the planet will get MAVEN into position, ready to play relay by the time the new rover lands, while still performing its science missions of studying the Martian atmosphere.

mavenaerobrakingdiagram

NASA will perform an aerobraking campaign over the following months to tighten MAVEN's orbit and prepare for the Mars 2020 rover landing.

NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Kel Elkins/Dan Gallagher

The planned 2020 rover mission will see a brand new robot land in Jezero Crater on a mission to find signs of life. Jezero is a site that once featured an ancient river delta, so there's a chance it may have preserved traces of ancient microbial life within the soil. The rover will also feature 23 cameras and a suite of scientific instruments to measure the atmosphere, geology and search for water. NASA has also made plans to launch a helicopter-like drone as part of the rover's payload.

The European Space Agency will also be sending their ExoMars Rover to the Red Planet in 2020. On Feb. 7, the agency announced the rover would be named Rosalind Franklin, after the pioneering DNA researcher. Franklin will likely land in Oxia Planum, a flat plain rich in iron-magnesium clays.

In much more devastating news, NASA's Opportunity rover still hasn't phoned home since a brutal dust storm swept over Mars in June 2018. The plucky little rover survived on Martian soil for 15 years, well exceeding the 90 days its original mission was scheduled for. It's getting more and more likely we won't hear from Opportunity again.

However, granted the mission proceeds smoothly, the Red Planet will welcome another two robotic explorers next year, joining NASA's Curiosity and InSight lander.

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