There is no doubt that our interest in the planet Mars is at an all-time high with the ongoing InSight and Mars Science Laboratory missions. NASA is building on these successful robotic missions with a new one known as Mars 2020. Scheduled for launch in July next year with a landing in February 2021, the Mars 2020 rover will spend at least one Martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years, on Mars’ surface.

Mars 2020 is being built specifically to search for signs of past life on Mars. As the most advanced spacecraft to ever land on Mars, it will carry seven science instruments to study the planet in greater detail than ever before. It also will collect soil and rock samples which may be returned to Earth by a future mission.

Of special interest are the 23 cameras onboard Mars 2020. These advanced cameras will assist the science instruments with conducting experiments, capturing Martian panoramas, looking for obstacles in the rover’s path, observing the atmosphere and weather, and photographing the spacecraft’s parachute as it unfurls during descent to the surface. Yet another camera will be located inside the rover to study the rock and soil samples as they are stored. These cameras will have more 3-D and color capabilities than the cameras used in previous missions to make the close examination of geologic features possible, even from long distances.

Mars 2020 will also carry a small rotorcraft, also known as the Mars Helicopter. It will confirm if flight is possible in Mars’ thin atmosphere which is only 1 percent as dense as Earth’s. It will be controlled from Earth and will be able to take high resolution color photographs while in flight.

The Mars 2020 rover needs a name, so NASA is conducting a naming contest open to all U.S. students in grades K-12 until Nov. 1. For more information, go to mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/participate/name-the-rover.

Stay aware of Mars 2020’s progress by visiting mars.nasa.gov/mars2020.

OCTOBER SKIES:

See bright Jupiter and the moon paired in the southwestern early evening sky on the 2nd, 3rd, and 31st. Dimmer Saturn is located to the left of Jupiter and will be near the moon during the evenings of the 4th and 5th.

David Abbou of Stafford County is a volunteer for the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors Program and is a member of the Rappahannock Astronomy Club. Contact him at davidastronomy@comcast.net.

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