• Mars 2020 rover, the new Martian explorer from NASA.

Mars 2020 rover, the new Martian explorer from NASA. (Photo : NASA)

NASA has revealed "Mars 2020," the rover that will succeed Curiosity in exploring the surface of Mars. This new kid on the Martian block will be smarter, sturdier and will have microphones so NASA engineers can hear what it is they're seeing.

And, sorry, the nuclear powered rover weighing 2,300 pounds won't bring along with it the robotic Mars helicopter that's been making the news lately.

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Mars 2020's main mission is to "seek the signs of life." It will accomplish this task with an onboard suite of special instruments. Among these are better cameras, a new coring drill and ground-penetrating radar to look beneath the dusty, red-tinged surface of Mars.

It will also have equipment to analyze organic chemicals. There will also be a device that will test techniques for creating oxygen on Mars, a feat that will be necessary for future human colonization. There will also be the microphones.

"This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time, and it could also provide useful engineering information," said Matt Wallace, the Mars 2020 deputy project manager.  

Mars 2020 will also be a lot smarter than Curiosity, which landed on Mars in August 2012 and is still operational despite a bum wheel and damaged solar panels. Mars 2020 will decide on its own the optimal time to deploy the parachute on its descent vehicle that will tear through the thin Martian atmosphere at 11,000 mph. Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 will be lowered onto the surface by a sky crane that will later fly away to crash some distance from the rover.

As it descends towards the surface, however, Mars 2020 will take pictures and compare those to an onboard map, which is a feature of a system called Terrain Relative Navigation. Cameras will also look-up at the parachute, as well.

Mars 2020 will launch in the summer of 2020 and will arrive at Mars in February 2021. The 11 months it will take for the rover to reach Mars will give NASA enough time to launch a new contest to name this rover.

How about "Darwin" for a name? Sounds appropriate.