A newly-installed clean room webcam at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is giving members of the public a front row seat as technicians and engineers assemble the Mars 2020 rover. The robotic explorer will be accompanied by a helicopter equipped with a high-resolution camera when it launches to the Red Planet atop an Atlas V rocket next year.
Mars rovers have to be incredibly resilient to survive the perilous passage from the surface of our planet, to that of our red neighbor. They must survive the tumultuous acoustic vibrations of launch during their exit through Earth's atmosphere, followed by the frigid environment of interplanetary space as they make the interplanetary journey to Mars.
These hardships form a drum roll for what is arguably the tensest part of a rover mission, wherein a 2,300 lb (1,040 kg) robot crashes through the weak Martian atmosphere, to be lowered delicately to the dusty surface with the help of a hovering sky crane.
For each of these potential dangers NASA has developed ingenious solutions designed to keep its rover healthy and able to scour the surface – and in the case of the 2020 rover, the subsurface of Mars – for clues that will help unravel the mysteries still held by the Red Planet. The greatest question of all revolves around whether our Martian neighbor was capable of hosting microbial life in the ancient past.
The webcam in NASA's High Bay 1 clean room, which has been dubbed "Seeing 2020," gives the public an opportunity to watch as engineers prepare their newest explorer for the rigors of life on another planet. The stream is live for 24 hours a day, with the exception of maintenance periods or technical glitches.
The stream will not be a constant hive of activity. Work is generally carried out on the rover 8 am PDT, so tune in from then onward to see the rover taking shape.
Seeing 2020 will be accompanied by a series of webchats taking place Monday to Thursday between the hours of 11 am and 4 pm PDT, during which the public can pose questions for members of the Mars 2020 team or JPL social media team to answer.
The Mars Helicopter that will accompany the rover has also recently passed a number of tests designed to prepare it for life on the Red Planet. Unlike the rover, the helicopter will not carry any scientific instruments, its main purpose will be to prove that heavier-than-air vehicles can operate in the thin Martian atmosphere, which has about 1 percent the density of Earth's gaseous envelope. The helicopter is made up of around 1,500 parts, with materials ranging from carbon fiber to aerogel.
The entire vehicle, including its high-resolution camera, weighs a mere 4 lb (1.8 kg), and will be transported to Mars in a cradle attached to the belly of the rover.
In January the helicopter completed a series of certification test flights, and has since been moved to a Lockheed Martin facility in Denver, Colorado. While there, engineers checked electrical connections between the helicopter and its cradle, and put the pair through vibration testing. The flight model was also put through thermal testing, during which it was exposed to -200° F (-129° C).
Following the tests, the helicopter was returned to the JPL and fitted with a new solar panel. The flight model is expected to be delivered to High Bay 1 clean room some time this Summer for final integration with the Mars 2020 Rover.
Should the technology demonstrator be successful, future missions could rely on helicopters to scout potentially dangerous areas such as cliffs or caves, or even to transport small payloads.
Members of the public can leave their own mark on the Mars 2020 rover by signing up for a NASA boarding pass on the agency website. Those who fill out the form will have their names placed on a dime-sized chip in microscopic writing, which will be mounted on the rover and protected by a glass cover.
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