Emerging Tech

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover passes first driving test with flying colors

The Mars 2020 rover’s driving systems appear to be in excellent working order following a recent vehicle test at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The rover rolled forward and backward over small ramps at the lab during its first driving test and also turned on the spot. Its next outing will be on Martian soil.

NASA

“Mars 2020 has earned its driver’s license,” Rich Rieber, the lead mobility systems engineer for Mars 2020, said in a release. “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.”

Rieber described the rover’s successful test as “a major milestone for Mars 2020.”

The Mars 2020 mission is expected to launch in July or August next year, with the landing scheduled for February 2021. Mission objectives include searching the planet for signs of past microbial life, characterizing Mars’ climate and geology, collecting samples for examination back on Earth, and gathering data to aid human exploration of the planet.

The Mars 2020 rover will be the most advanced vehicle of its kind to be used by NASA in its ongoing exploration of Mars. It comes with higher-resolution, wide-field-of-view color navigation cameras, an extra computer “brain” for processing images and making maps, and advanced auto-navigation software that will allow it to “make more driving decisions for itself than any previous rover,” NASA said.

Equipped with six super-durable wheels, the rover has a specially designed suspension system for tackling rocky terrain on the Red Planet. It can also handle tilts of up to 45 degrees without toppling over. The vehicle should be able to cover an average of 650 feet (200 meters) per Martian day, which lasts a little over 24 hours.

The Mars 2020 rover will also launch the diminutive Mars Helicopter, billed as the first aircraft to fly on another planet. Weighing 4 pounds (1.8 kg) and featuring rotors just over a meter long, the helicopter will search for interesting research sites on Mars, and also provide data for mapping routes for future missions.

When it reaches the Martian surface, it’ll be the first rover to do so since Curiosity, which arrived seven years ago. Despite facing a number of challenges, Curiosity has done some amazing work. In 2018, for example, it discovered methane and other organic compounds that serve as the foundations of life, giving scientists their first reliable evidence of the existence of organic compounds on Mars. More recently the rover presented scientists with something of a puzzle after it discovered varying oxygen levels on the planet’s surface.

And in case you’re wondering why the 2020 rover doesn’t have a proper name, rest assured, there’s a student contest currently underway that’s going to decide exactly that.

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