Spaceflight Insider

NASA begins assembly, test, and launch operations for Mars 2020 rover

A technician works on the descent stage for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission inside JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Mars 2020 is slated to carry NASA’s next Mars rover to the Red Planet in July of 2020. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has started the assembly, test, and launch operations (ATLO) for its Mars 2020 rover, a key milestone that involves bringing together parts from all over the world.

Scheduled for launch atop an Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July of 2020, this latest rover is being sent to the Red Planet to conduct geological studies of its landing site, explore the potential habitability of the environment, look for signs of ancient microbial life, and to scout for potential future landing sites for crewed missions.

The latter task involves evaluating both the resources and dangers of landing in specific areas of this flash-frozen world, the fourth planet from our Sun.

Mars 2020 rover and its science instruments, which are being developed and fielded utilize new technologies developed by NASA’s Space Technology Program, its Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, and various international partners. It is also planned to collect samples of rock and soil from the Martian surface, which would be placed in sealed tubes in anticipation of a future mission that may recover them and return them to Earth for analysis.

Propulsion systems for the rover’s cruise and descent stage main structures were installed over the course of the past few months. Between now and the planned launch date, a host of rover subsystems are slated to be added, including navigation, thermal, power, avionics, and telecommunications systems.

Much as the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity did on August 6, 2012, a rocket-powered sky crane is being prepared to carry the rover to the Martian surface once it arrives at the Red Planet. The crane’s parts, including the cruise stage, aeroshell, and descent stage, along with the rover itself, are scheduled for assembly at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory‘s (JPL) Spacecraft Assembly Facility High Bay 1, where historic probes such as the Mars rovers, Mariner mission to Venus, and Ranger missions to the Moon were constructed.

“No better place in the world to assemble NASA’s next Mars rover than JPL’s High Bay 1,” said John McNamee of JPL, who is the Mars 2020 project manager via a release issued by the space agency. “On the floor,  you’ll see the components of our spacecraft taking shape–put together by people who are the best in the world at what they do. And on the wall behind them, you will see all the logos of the historic missions of exploration that have also been assembled in High Bay 1 in the past.”

David Gruel, ATLO Manager for Mars 2020, pointed out that some parts of the spacecraft are coming from the other side of the world while others are coming from buildings on the same street as High Bay 1.

“Right now, we are working the descent stage, and by fall, we expect to be working on the rover itself,” Gruel said.





Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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