By Alex Polimeni
Following in the footsteps of NASA’s past rovers —Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity — NASA’s fifth Mars rover has been delivered to its seaside launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On Feb. 12, the Mars 2020 rover and associated hardware arrived at the Kennedy Space Center.
The Mars 2020 rover is a $2.4 billion astrobiology laboratory on wheels, whose stated goal is to discover the building blocks of life and search for signs of prehistoric life on the Red Planet.
The mission hardware was largely built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. The SAF has housed the construction of every previous Mars rover and a multitude of groundbreaking planetary exploration missions, like Voyager 1 and 2, the first two spacecraft to leave the Solar System.
“Our rover has left the only home it has ever known,” said John McNamee, project manager of Mars 2020 ina press release. “The 2020 family here at JPL is a little sad to see it go, but we’re even more proud knowing that the next time our rover takes to the skies, it will be headed to Mars.”
The currently unnamed Mars rover will continue a legacy that began with NASA’s first Mars rover – Sojourner – turning to school-children from the United States to name the rover. An essay competition, open to all students from K through 12, is underway, with an announcement expected in the next few months.
The rover is also the host to the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet. The Mars Helicopter Scout is a twin-blade miniature technology demonstrator, to validate flying an aircraft on another planet. The MHS is mounted below the rear of the rover.
As Bob Balaram, chief engineer of the MHS stated in a JPL video, “the system is designed to fly for 2 to 3 minutes every day.” He added that the short duration flights can reach an altitude of around 15 feet and will support a 13-megapixel high-resolution camera.
Additionally, the first of its kind sample-return payload will be included within the rover. The rover will use its drill to collect samples of interest and store the contents inside various tubes. The sample “package” will be deposited at a location on the surface, determined by the JPL team. Eventually, a joint NASA and European Space Agency mission will retrieve the samples and return them to Earth, allowing thorough analysis according to JPL. These will be the first samples ever retrieved from Mars, using laboratories on Earth for dissection.
The Mars 2020 mission has a method of Entry, Descent, and Landing, known to JPL officials as “seven minutes of terror.” Once the Mars 2020 payload is within the atmosphere of Mars, a rocket-propelled sky crane will be deployed. The sky crane will act as a hovering platform, as the rover descends on a cable to the surface of Mars.
Due to the distance from Mars, there is about a 14-minute delay for signals to reach Earth.
“From the top of the atmosphere, down to the surface, it takes us 7 minutes,” said Adam Steltzner, EDL Engineer, in a JPL video. “So when we first get word we touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle is either alive or dead on the surface, for at least 7 minutes.”
However, before this mission can begin its journey to Mars, it must first leave Earth’s atmosphere. NASA has selected United Launch Alliance to lift this flagship science mission, utilizing the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas V is the workhorse for NASA’s most costly missions, having successfully delivered many spacecraft to Mars in the past. At liftoff, the Atlas V for Mars 2020 will generate 2,254,000 lbs. of thrust; all this power required to lift the car-sized, 2,300 lb rover and associated hardware to Mars.
The launch is currently scheduled for July 17 from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Complex 41 has supported a multitude of Mars explorers, including the Curiosity rover, in 2012.