Like parents witnessing their baby’s first precious steps, engineers with NASA’s Mars 2020 mission have driven their fancy new rover for the very first time, in an important test of the space agency’s next Martian explorer.
The yet-to-be-named rover inched forward for the very first time on Tuesday, according to a NASA press release. The test happened inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It’s called the clean room because, as you may have guessed, it’s a very, very clean room.
During the test, which lasted for over 10 hours, NASA engineers noticed no problems, and the six-wheeled rover successfully performed all the required tasks. Tests of its newfangled autonomous navigation system went well, according to NASA, and the vehicle functioned the way it was supposed to under its own weight—its Earth weight, that is. Once on Mars this 1,050-kilogram machine will be considerably lighter, as the gravity on Mars is 38 per cent of what it is on Earth.
The test went so well that the “next time the Mars 2020 rover drives, it will be rolling over Martian soil,” according to NASA. The Mars 2020 mission is on target for its scheduled launch in July 2020. The rover will land in Mars’s Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.
“A rover needs to rove, and Mars 2020 did that [on Tuesday],” said John McNamee, the project manager for Mars 2020, in the NASA press release. “We can’t wait to put some red Martian dirt under its wheels.”
For its inaugural drive, the rover moved 1 metre at a time, allowing the engineers to assess its locomotive and steering abilities. The rover also drove over small ramps to simulate the uneven terrain it’s bound to encounter on Mars.
The Mars 2020 engineers were also able to collect data from the vehicle’s Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX)—an onboard instrument that uses radar waves to scan the ground immediately below. Once on Mars, RIMFAX will penetrate the ground to depths exceeding 10 metres, depending on the materials underneath.
This rover will be more independent than any of its predecessors. It’s equipped with advanced auto-navigation software, which will be driven by a dedicated onboard computer fed by data collected from the vehicle’s high-resolution, wide-field colour cameras.
NASA is expecting the rover to travel an average of 200 metres per day. By contrast, the current distance record for a single day on Mars is 214 metres, which was set by the Curiosity rover. The Mars 2020 rover’s wheels are designed for added durability; after seven years on Mars, Curiosity’s wheels are visibly tattered.
Once on Mars, the rover will explore a former lake bed, where it will search for signs of prior life on Mars. It’ll also study the planet’s climate and geology and collect and deposit surface samples for a future mission to collect. And excitingly, the rover will have a partner: the Mars Helicopter Scout. So get excited—this is going to be another very cool mission to the Red Planet.