NASA’s Mars 2020 rover gets robotic arm to search for life on the Red Planet

Having recently received its wheels, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover now has its arm. On June 21, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, began attaching the intricate robotic arm and hand that the unmanned explorer will use to search for signs of past and present life on the Red Planet.

Resembling the robotic arm used on NASA’s Curiosity rover, the Mars 2020 arm is a much more sophisticated version with a new array of devices designed using experience from building and operating Curiosity’s device. Stretching out to a length of 7 ft (2.1 m), the arm has five degrees of freedom thanks to a set of rotary actuator motors in the shoulder azimuth, shoulder elevation, elbow, wrist, and turret joints.

Its main function is to carry the rover’s turret or “hand,” which it uses to collect samples and make close-up studies on or below the Martian surface. This includes the SHERLOC instrument, which uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organic compounds and minerals that may have been affected by microbial life;

and the WATSON camera that works with SHERLOC like a geologist’s hand-lens as it magnifies and records textures of rock and soil targets. Another turret instrument is PIXL, which looks for signs of past life in Martian rocks and soil.

But the star of the show is the drill, which Mars 2020 will use to bore up to 1 in (27 mm) into rocks to seek out samples unaffected by centuries of radioactive bombardment and harsh chemical reactions. In addition, the arm and hand will collect samples, which will be returned to the rover’s interior, where a second, much smaller robotic arm will package them in special containers to be left on the surface of the planet for collection and return to Earth by a later mission.

“You have to give a hand to our rover arm installation team,” says Ryan van Schilifgaarde, a support engineer at JPL for Mars 2020 assembly. “They made an extremely intricate operation look easy. We’re looking forward to more of the same when the arm will receive its turret in the next few weeks.”

The Mars 2020 mission is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020 and land on Mars on February 18, 2021.