NASA said Friday it passed a key milestone for its Mars 2020 rover program, allowing it to proceed with final design and construction.

George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive, said Friday in a statement a significant amount of the mission’s heritage components have already been built due to the rover leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, the rover’s six-wheeled, one-ton predecessor. The milestone passed is formally known as key decision point to enter Phase C.

Artist's sketch based on the Curiosity rover in NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, with proposed modifications based on the science definition team's recommendations. Photo: NASA.
Artist’s sketch based on the Curiosity rover in NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, with proposed modifications based on the science definition team’s recommendations. Photo: NASA.

Kenneth Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., said Friday during a Facebook [FB] Q&A the rover will feature a high-resolution, stereo-zoom camera on the mast as well as a laser. The camera, he said, will be capable of producing images from both near and far and will produce panoramic photos similar to those on Curiosity.

Farley said the laser will fire at rocks at a near distance to understand not only the elemental composition of the rock, but the mineralogical identity. This, he said, will allow NASA to understand the geological environment that surrounds the rover.

The Mars 2020 rover program will investigate a region of Mars where the ancient environment may have been favorable for microbial life, probing the Martian rocks for evidence of past life, according to a NASA statement. Throughout its investigation, it will collect samples of soil and rock and cache them on the surface for a potential return to Earth by a future mission.

In addition to the laser and camera, the rover will also have a new subsystem to collect and prepare Martian rockets and soil samples. This will include a corning drill on the rover’s arm and a rack of sample tubes. About 30 of these sample tubes will be deposited at select locations for return on potential future sample-retrieval mission.

Two science instruments mounted on the rover’s robotic arm will be used to search for signs of past life and determine where to collect samples by analyzing the chemical, mineral, physical and organic characteristics of Martian rocks. A suite of sensors on the mast and deck will monitor weather conditions and the dust environment and a ground-penetrating radar will assess sub-surface geologic structure.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a federally-funded research and development center (FFRD), is the prime contractor for the Mars 2020 rover. The Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) provided $388 million for the Mars 2020 rover program for fiscal year 2017 while the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) provided $408 million.