- NASA is building a nuclear-powered rover to send to Mars. For now, it’s called Mars 2020.
- The rover will search for signs of ancient microbial alien life, collect and stash rock samples, and test out technology that could pave the way for humans to walk the Martian surface one day.
- Mars 2020 is set to launch in July 2020 and land in the red planet’s Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.
- With the launch just a year away, the rover is taking shape before our eyes inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
- Here’s what the birth of a Mars rover looks like.
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NASA’s next Mars-bound robot is taking shape.
With launch a year away, a team of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are putting together the next vehicle, slated to land on the red planet. It’s called Mars 2020 for now, though grade-school students will compete to give it a more catchy name in the fall.
Upon completion, Mars 2020 will be 10 feet long, weigh 2,314 pounds, and run on nuclear power. It’s scheduled to launch in July 2020 and land in the once watery Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. If all goes according to plan, the rover will then get to work gathering information about Mars’ climate and geology. It will look for signs of ancient life, and become the first spacecraft to collect samples from the Martian surface. (Those cores will get stashed away until a future mission can bring them back to Earth.)
The rover carries a suite of cutting-edge tools: There’s a new navigation system to make landing on the red planet less risky, an instrument designed to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide, and tools to collect data that could help scientists better predict Martian weather.
Together, all these developments could get us closer to putting human boots on Mars’ harsh surface.
As the JPL team gets the rover ready, NASA is broadcasting their work via a webcam in the lab and releasing regular updates about the progress.
Here is what the rover’s construction looks like so far.
The Mars 2020 rover’s design is based on that of Curiosity, which has been exploring the red planet since 2012. Curiosity discovered that Mars once had environments that could have supported microbial life. Mars 2020 will search for signs of that life.
Once completed, Mars 2020 will feature six wheels, a mast to raise cameras to human eye level, a robotic arm, three antennae, and seven impressive scientific instruments. All in all, the mission is set to cost NASA $2.1 billion.
The goal is as ambitious as the cost: NASA aims to determine whether life ever existed on Mars.
The mission is also expected to teach researchers much more about the planet’s climate and geology — it will be the first to collect samples of rock and soil. Overall, the work is part of long-term preparations to send future human explorers to Mars.
Since NASA announced the start of the rover’s assembly last year, the team has been fitting the pieces together step by step.
Last year, technicians painted the rover’s chassis — basically its skeleton.
The rover is scheduled to explore Mars’ windy, high-radiation surface for at least two years, so a proper covering will help the robot stay alive. The chassis got a very precise paint job before the technicians started attaching components: Three coats of paint for a thickness of between four- and six-thousandths of an inch.
Then in March, engineers installed an instrument that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. If it works, it could solve a big problem facing future human explorers.
One of the biggest obstacles to putting people on Mars is that the planet’s air is very thin, so humans would have to bring their own oxygen or produce it on-site.
But the device that the new Mars rover will test out — called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) — is designed to convert the abundant carbon dioxide on Mars into breathable oxygen. (About 95% of the red planet’s atmosphere is CO2.)
If MOXIE is a success, it would offer a lighter, cheaper alternative to hauling oxygen tanks through space. Plus, the ability to covert carbon dioxide into oxygen could allow for the creation of rocket fuel for a return trip back to Earth.
MOXIE is the size of a car battery, but similar equipment for use on human missions would need to be 100 times larger. Even that would save precious space on a crewed flight to Mars, though, since MOXIE could hypothetically replace both oxygen tanks and three-quarters of the necessary propellant.
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