Mars 2020 rover takes its first test drive
NASA's Mars 2020 rover has taken its first drive as part of preflight systems tests. On December 19, 2019, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the unmanned explorer completed a 10-hour drive in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility clean room as it operated under its own weight in Earth gravity and put its new autonomous navigation system through its paces.
The Mars 2020 mission isn't the first to send a rover to the Red Planet, but the mission's rover is the most advanced. Outwardly, it looks very much like the Curiosity rover on which it is based, but it reflects almost a decade of technological advancement over NASA's previous rolling laboratory.
One example of this is Mars 2020's new autonomous navigation system, which uses higher-resolution, wide-field-of-view color navigation cameras and a specialized image-processing computer that allows it to handle a greater share of the task of moving from one point to another.
NASA says the navigation system, combined with the rover's new, more durable metal wheels, will allow Mars 2020 to average drives of 650 ft (200 m) per Martian day. To date, the longest drive taken by a Mars rover was by NASA's Opportunity, which managed 702 ft (214 m) in one day. Mars 2020 will manage almost this with each drive.
During the 10-hour Earth-side test drive, Mars 2020 steered itself as it negotiated 3-ft (1-m) slow-motion sprints over ramps covered with special static-control mats to protect the electronics from static-electricity overloads.
When its ground tests are completed, Mars 2020 will be packed up and shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its launch to Mars in July or August 2020. Scheduled to land in the Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, 2021, the rover will seek out evidence of microbial life and collect geological samples, which will be left on the Martian surface for collection by a future robotic mission.
"Mars 2020 has earned its driver's license," says Rich Rieber, the lead mobility systems engineer for Mars 2020. "The test unambiguously proved that the rover can operate under its own weight and demonstrated many of the autonomous-navigation functions for the first time. This is a major milestone for Mars 2020."
The video below shows Mars 2020 on the move.