NASA is ramping up for the Mars 2020 mission's July 2020 launch as the space agency begins the Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations (ATLO) phase of the project at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility High Bay 1 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. This includes the final assembly and electrical integration of flight hardware into the spacecraft's rocket-powered "sky crane" descent stage, Mars rover, cruise stage, and aeroshell.

Scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet in February 2021, Mars 2020 is the latest mission in NASA's Mars Exploration Program with the main objective of visiting areas that were once habitable and collecting and analyzing soil and rock samples for chemical biosignatures. Some of these samples will be stored for recovery and return to Earth by a future mission. Also, the unmanned nuclear-powered rover will study the Martian environment to help determine its suitability for supporting a future manned mission.

The design of the rover is an updated version of the Curiosity rover currently exploring the surface of Mars. It has the same chassis and undercarriage as Curiosity, though with improved wheels for greater durability. Like Curiosity, it will also use a plutonium-fueled nuclear radiothermal generator as a power source.

According to NASA, Mars 2020 may only be about the size of an SUV, but its construction is a global affair with a logistical network to match.

"Parts of this mission are coming from the other side of the world, and some are coming from just 'down the street' in Pasadena, and some are coming from literally down the street – a couple of buildings away," says David Gruel, ATLO Manager for Mars 2020 at JPL. "Right now we are working the descent stage, and by Fall we expect to be working on the rover itself."

The space agency says that the propulsion systems for the cruise and descent stages have already been installed and that the next 18 months will be taken up by the addition of avionics, power, telecommunications, mechanisms, thermal systems, and navigation systems and subsystems. When complete, it will be shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it will be placed atop an Atlas V 541 rocket at launch complex 41.

Source: NASA