NASA has inched closer to completing its next Mars rover with a milestone driving test. The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California fired up the Mars 2020 rover and allowed to to drive around the Spacecraft Assembly Facility clean room. NASA reports the rover passed the test with flying colors, signaling it’s ready to drive on the red planet.
The still-unnamed Mars 2020 rover borrows heavily from Curiosity’s highly successful design. It has six wheels with independent suspensions, allowing it to traverse uneven terrain. In the JPL test, the team set up small staggered ramps to test the robot’s weight distribution as the wheels moved up and down. The rover drove in one-meter increments for more than 10 hours.
The rover has now shown that it can operate under its own weight on Earth, so it should encounter no problems on Mars where it will weigh much less. NASA hopes this rover will cover a lot of ground on Mars — Opportunity holds the current record with 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers), but Curiosity (upon which Mars 2020 is based) has managed a respectable 13.10 miles (21.09 kilometers).
This driving test also demonstrated the rover’s autonomous capabilities for the first time. NASA designed this robot to handle more decision-making on site rather than waiting for controllers on Earth to send instructions for each maneuver. For this reason, it has higher resolution cameras and additional processing power to create maps and run its auto-navigation software. It should have the necessary muscle, too, with its thicker aluminum wheels and titanium spokes. Curiosity’s wheels have suffered heavy damage from the sharp rocks of Mars, but Mars 2020 should be able to cover more distance before showing wear. Mars 2020 should be able to average 650 feet (200 meters) per day, which is just shy of Curiosity’s best day at 702 feet (214 meters).
NASA plans to launch the rover in summer 2020 when Mars and Earth pass close by each other. It should land on Mars using a Curiosity-style rocket sled in February 2021. The Jezero crater landing site is ideal for the mission to search for evidence of ancient life, as well as current water deposits. It will even store samples that a future mission could collect for a return trip to Earth. The rover should also get a name in the next few months.
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