NASA's Mars 2020 lander has experienced a minor hiccup during preparations for its mission to the Red Planet, with NASA revealing that structural testing has resulted in a fracture to the spacecraft's heat shield. The good news is, however, that the setback shouldn't mean a delayed launch.

Set to touchdown on the surface of Mars in February 2021, the Mars 2020 lander will be tasked with scoping out regions believed to have once been habitable. It will collect soil and rock for analysis, with some to be returned to Earth on future missions for further investigation. The observations it makes will also be used in planning future manned missions to Mars.

But first it has to pass through the Martian atmosphere, where it will be subjected to intense heat on the way down. The spacecraft's heat shield is one component of a thermal protection system and aeroshell built to encase the rover and its landing gear during descent.

The shield had already undergone testing back in 2008, but a recent round of testing was designed to subject it to forces up to 20 percent greater than what are expected during entry through the Martian atnosphere. And that brought about a fracture that occurred near the shield's outer edge and spread right around its circumference.

NASA says the fracture is unexpected and it is now working with Lockheed Martin on a replacement, a process that includes understanding how the fracture came about and weighing up any potential design changes. This will take place over the next year as engineers repair the shield and continue with prelaunch assembly and testing. NASA says the incident won't affect the mission timeline.

Once ready, the SUV-sized spacecraft will be placed atop an Atlas V 541 rocket and fired towards Mars from Cape Canaveral in July 2020.

Source: NASA

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