Spaceflight Insider

Aerojet Rocketdyne selected to provide power system and thrusters for 2020 Mars rover

Aerojet Rocketdyne has been selected to produce the thrusters that will help guide NASA's next Mars rover to the surface of the Red Planet. Image Credit: JPL / NASA

With NASA preparing to send crews to travel to Mars some time in the 2030s, the space agency is developing mechanical pathfinders which will blaze the trail that their human counterparts will retrace when their time comes to make history. However, getting to the Martian surface – is more difficult than recent missions have made it out to be. To help ensure that NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover makes it safely to the dusty terrain – it has selected a well-known aerospace entity, under a larger collaborative effort – to provide key systems to help ensure success.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s thrusters have been selected for the follow-on mission to NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, Curiosity. In its current configuration, the robotic explorer will be very similar to Curiosity – which landed on the Martian surface in August of 2012 after a nine-month journey across the void.

Video courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In terms of this upcoming mission, Aerojet Rocketdyne (AR) will supply the thrusters which will direct the rover, encapsulated in its aeroshell, to a touchdown on the Martian surface. This contract is with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL ) who will produce the rover itself.

During the spacecraft’s entry, descent and landing, more commonly known as the “seven minutes of terror” this new rover will rely on a mix of eight MR-80B 700-7 lbf thrusters and eight MR-107U 68 lbf thrusters. These will likely be arrayed in the same configuration on this new rover as they were on Curiosity’s aeroshell.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne has provided propulsion for every Mars mission since Viking 1 and Viking 2, and we are proud to continue that legacy with a mission designed to drive innovation and technologies that may enable humans to live on our planetary neighbor one day,” said the company’s Vice President of Space Systems – Warren Yasuhara.

Video courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Perhaps of greater note is another aspect of the mission that AR will be contributing to. Mars is a world which sees dust storms that can cover the planet’s entire surface. As such, NASA has opted to select the “nuclear option” in terms of power for the robot. Rovers before Curiosity were dependent on solar arrays to collect sunlight which would then be converted into electrical power. MSL marked the first time that the agency has used nuclear-powered Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG), as the driving force behind these mechanical geologists.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy – will provide the MMRTG which will give the 2020 Mars Rover “life.” Given that this, yet unnamed, automaton is planned to have seven new, advanced, science instruments – it will need it. The 2020 Mars Rover is, in design, similar to Curiosity and will be tasked with looking for evidence that the Red Planet might have once been able to support life – as well as other tasks pertinent to NASA’s current direction.

The scientific instruments that are currently planned for this mission include the following:

  • Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). This device is an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer which is being sent to   Mars in order to gain a better understanding of the materials which cover the surface of the Red Planet.
  • Radar Imager for Mars’ subsurface experiment (RIMFAX). This instrument will give the rover the ability to peer dozens of meters below the robotic explorer.
  • Mastcam-Z, a stereoscopic imaging system.
  • Mars Environmental Dynamic Analyzer (MEDA) – will be used to chronicle weather conditions that include humidity, pressure, wind speed, dust size and wind speed.
  • SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis and mineralogy in rocks and regolith from a distance.
  • The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE). MOXIE will test out technologies which are necessary to produce oxygen on the Red Planet.
  • The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC). This ultraviolet Raman spectrometer will be used to detect organic compounds.

The program to produce the MMRTG – is a team effort. Aerojet Rocketdyne, Teledyne Energy Systems, and the U.S. Department of Energy are collaborating to supply the rover with all the energy it needs to test out systems for future crewed missions to Mars, conducts further studies into the past habitability of the Red Planet and look for potential candidates for a possible sample return mission.

Video courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

“With no moving parts, our nuclear power source is extremely robust and should give the 2020 rover the same excellent mobility and scientific capability that Curiosity is presently experiencing in the harsh environment of Mars,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Director of Advanced Power Systems, Larry Trager. “We understand the importance of a reliable, long-lasting power source for future, increasingly sophisticated Mars missions.”

Unlike the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which were powered by solar arrays affixed to their “backs” – the MMRTG that is powering Curiosity and the one which will power the Mars 2020 rover – allows this next generation of robotic pathfinders to continue operating in the Martian night, Winter and even in the vacuum of space between worlds.

As it is currently envisioned, the Mars 2020 rover will have seven scientific instruments. Even more so than the robots that preceded it to the surface of Mars, this future robotic geologist – will also be tasked with scouting out in situ (on site) resources which could help pioneering astronauts on the surface of Mars generate oxygen for breathing – and for rocket fuel.

NASA announced its intention to launch the 2020 Mars Rover during the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 4, 2012. Almost 60 proposals were reviewed for the rover who has been given a budget of some $1.5 billion. This is an estimated $1 billion less than Curiosity. NASA’s Associate Administer for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, has stated that the availability of spare parts makes this reduction in cost possible.

Video courtesy of Honeybee Robotics



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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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