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Spin me right round: Mars 2020 rover gets its balanced checked

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover recently entered its final year of engineering before it is launched on its journey to the red planet, and it has been subjected to a battery of tests to ensure it’s ready to touch down. The latest test was a spin on a rotating table to check its weight distribution.

In order to find the rover’s center of gravity, which is an important factor in the assembly process, NASA engineers used a “spin table.” This device rotates the rover at one revolution per minute to check exactly where its center of gravity is located. If necessary, the engineers can add weights to part of the rover to balance it perfectly. This ensures that the spacecraft will travel smoothly as it leaves Earth and eventually touches down on Mars.

“The spin table process is similar to how a gas station would balance a new tire before putting it on your car,” Lemil Cordero, Mars 2020 mass properties engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained in a statement. “We rotate the rover back and forth and look for asymmetries in its mass distribution. Then, similar to your gas station putting small weights on the tire’s rim to bring it into balance, we’ll put small balance masses on the rover in specific locations to get its center of gravity exactly where we want it.”

This time-lapse (speeded up 28 times) shows NASA’s Mars 2020 rover as it was rotated on a spin table in the clean room of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The engineers ended up added nine weights in total, together weighing 44 pounds (22 kilograms). The weights are made of tungsten, a tough and corrosion-resistant metal, and are attached at pre-determined attachment points across the rover. Now the adjustments have been made, a second round of testing on the spin table will take place next year at Cape Canaveral.

The aim is for the rover to launch with the Mars 2020 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral in July next year. The craft will travel to Mars on a seven-month voyage and is due to touch down in the Jezero Crater in February 2021. There it will collect high definition images, samples, and data about the Martian environment and will look for evidence of ancient water on the surface in particular.

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