NASA's Mars 2020 Rover Fractures Its Heat Shield During an Early Test

Sunday, 29 April 2018 - 12:22PM
Space
Mars
NASA
Sunday, 29 April 2018 - 12:22PM
NASA's Mars 2020 Rover Fractures Its Heat Shield During an Early Test
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA won't be launching their latest and greatest Mars rover until 2020, but just like anything we launch into space, it's going to need all that time to ensure it'll work properly.  

Case in point: NASA just ran a week-long test on their Mars 2020 rover (that is its official name, unlike previous rovers with names like Curiosity and Opportunity) at a Lockheed Martin Space facility, where they simulated enormous heat to see whether the rover's heat shield could survive the extremely high temperatures it will face during its entry into the Martian atmosphere.

The test simulated heat 20 percent greater than what the rover is expected to face on its entry, to make sure it could handle any surprises thrown its way. As of now, it would not have fared well if any surprises came its way - at the end of the test on April 12, 2018, the heat shield was inspected and a large crack was found running along its outer edge.



Since a shield isn't especially useful once there's a hole in it, a replacement heat shield is now being built for Mars 2020. NASA and Lockheed Martin (which was contracted to provide assistance in Mars 2020's construction) are still investigating to see what specifically caused the fracture, so the replacement can be updated and strengthened accordingly.

The old shield will also be repaired so it can see some more use in prelaunch testing, although there's little chance it'll make its way into space.

For now, NASA is confident that this setback won't alter the launch date for Mars 2020. The rover is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral on at Atlas V rocket on July 17, 2020, and the construction of an entirely new heat shield won't push that back at all. Assuming nothing serious happens during the next several tests - because there's always something not working right on machines this complex - Mars 2020 will still launch on that day.

NASA has faced some trouble lately with delays on other machines like their James Webb Space Telescope and their Space Launch System rocket. However, their planned trips to Mars have otherwise been going smoothly. In May, NASA will be launching their Mars InSight Lander which, unlike a rover, will be stationary once it touches down on the Martian surface. And testing on that has gone pretty smoothly thus far.

Once Mars 2020 breaks through the Martian atmosphere and lands on its surface, it'll come equipped with state-of-the-art cameras, tools for collecting samples of Mars dirt to send back to Earth, and plenty of other gizmos to examine Mars for signs of water, bacteria, or anything out of the ordinary. And once Mars 2020 is operational, we'll still keep in touch with the previous rovers which have been there much longer.

The Opportunity rover has survived years longer than expected, and Curiosity and Mars 2020 are fully expected to do the same, letting us cover more ground on Mars for the foreseeable future.
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