Mars 2020 rover’s protective cover arrives at KSC
There are a lot of components that are critical to achieve mission success when it comes to interplanetary travel. Leaving Earth’s atmosphere requires a payload fairing. Similar shielding is needed when entering Mars’ atmosphere fortunately for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, Lockheed Martin has this covered.
The Mars 2020 rover’s aeroshell arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, Dec. 12. The aeroshell is comprised of two parts, the heat shield (the part that protects the spacecraft through the atmosphere) and the backshell (spacecraft from the extreme conditions encountered in the black void it will encounter on the way to Mars). Constructed in Littleton, Colorado the aeroshell was flown out of Buckley Air Force Base on a USAF transport to KSC.
“The transport to Buckley occurred early in the morning on on Dec. 10. It was cold, but worth it. The aeroshell was loaded into the Transport plane starting about noon on Dec 11. The plane left Denver about 7:00 p.m. that evening. The flight to KSC was perfect and the program personnel on the plane remarked how smooth the ride was and how they didn’t even feel the landing,” said Neil Tice, Mars 2020 aeroshell program manager at Lockheed Martin Space. “The shock, humidity, and temperature monitors remained within allowable levels during the entire operation. The heat shield and backshell were removed from the containers on Dec. 13 and are in perfect condition. We’re looking forward to the launch next year and the landing in Feb. 2021.”
This techno-cocoon encapsulates the mini car-sized robot as it descends through the thin Martian atmosphere (which is less than one percent that of Earth’s) as well as its voyage through space.
In terms of specifics, Lockheed Martin provided a bit of information about the aeroshell:
Because of the large mass and unique entry trajectory profile that could create external temperatures up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat shield uses a tiled Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) thermal protection system instead of the Mars heritage Super Lightweight Ablator (SLA) 561V. This will only be the second time PICA has flown on a Mars mission.
To date, only one other aeroshell even comes close to matching the one that Mars 2020 will have and that’s the one its ‘cousin’ the Curiosity rover used when it pierced the Red Planet’s atmosphere back in August of 2012. Mars 2020’s aeroshell measures about 15 feet (four-and-a-half meters) in diameter. For comparison the heat shields used on the command module portion of the Apollo spacecraft were just shy of 13 feet (about four meters) in diameter.
“Even though we have the experience of building the nearly identical aeroshell for the Curiosity Rover, the almost 15-foot diameter composite structure was just as big a challenge to build and test 10 years later,” Tice said. “We’ve built every Mars aeroshell entry system for NASA of its 40 years of exploring Mars, so we pulled from that experience to build this important system.”
Lockheed Martin isn’t the only one who has been busily working to get the Mars 2020 show on the road. The MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI2), produced by NASA was installed onto the spacecraft’s backshell and heat shield. MEDLI2 is designed to take temperature and pressure readings on descent.
“The production of both the heat shield and backshell went very well. Lockheed Martin was given the contract to build a new Aeroshell for Mars 2020 back in October of 2016. At that time, our contractual delivery date to KSC was Dec 3, 2019. The actual delivery date ended up being Dec. 11. This was just an eight day difference which was due to scheduling with the Air Force transport plane. The hardware was ready to be delivered on time per the original contract,” Tice told SpaceFlight Insider.
For its part, the robot is being tested at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. If everything continues according to plan, Mars 2020 will launch this July (2020) and will land roughly seven months later in February of 2021 at Jezero Crater. Once it arrives, the rover will seek out evidence that Mars was (or still is) capable of supporting life. It also will leave samples of what it finds along its path. NASA hopes these will be collected one day and returned to Earth.
SpaceFlight Insider is a space journal working to break the pattern of bias prevalent among other media outlets. Working off a budget acquired through sponsors and advertisers, SpaceFlight Insider has rapidly become one of the premier space news outlets currently in operation. SFI works almost exclusively with the assistance of volunteers.