NASA’s Mars 2020 rover coming together at JPL

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory integrate the Mars 2020 rover’s motor controller assembly. The rover, a close twin of the Curiosity rover now exploring Gale Crater on the red planet, is scheduled for launch in the summer of 2020. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s 2020 Mars rover and the spacecraft that will carry it to the red planet a little more than a year from now are taking shape at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The nuclear-powered 2020 rover is a close relative of the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012 and is now working its way up the lower slopes of Mount Sharp in the heart of Gale Crater. But the new model features a variety of upgrades and improvements, along with a suite of powerful instruments to look for signs of past martian life and to cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.

In the image above, taken 29 April, engineers in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility’s High Bay 1 work to integrate the new rover’s motor controller assembly in the body of the spacecraft. The motor controller assembly routes commands to the rover’s wheels, robotic arm joints, camera mast, drill and systems used to collect soil samples for on-site analysis. In this view, the rover’s body is upside down to provide access to the belly of the spacecraft.

In the center of this view, a mockup of the Mars 2020 rover can be seen nestled belly up inside its aerodynamic backshell. The backshell, in turn, is attached to the spacecraft’s interplanetary cruise stage. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Along with integrating systems in the rover, JPL engineers also are assembling the spacecraft’s interplanetary cruise stage and the rocket-powered “sky crane” landing system that will lower Mars 2020 to touchdown in Jezero Crater in February 2021. A critical part of that work is fitting components together – stacking – several times to make sure everything will fit properly inside the nose cone fairing of an Atlas 5 rocket.

“Stacking is an important milestone in mission development, because as good as our computer models are, we still need to put it together to show that the bolt holes line up and everything fits together,” said David Gruel, assembly, test and launch operations (ATLO) manager for Mars 2020 at JPL.

“It is a great feeling for the entire project when we see the stack sitting there waiting to go for the next part of its journey, which will eventually lead to a launch pad at the Cape Canaveral in July of next year.”

An engineer checks connections between the Mars 2020 rover/backshell (left) and the spacecraft’s interplanetary cruise stage (right) during fit checks. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first step in the stacking procedure was mounting the rocket-powered descent stage on top of a rover mockup. After multiple fit checks, the aerodynamic “backshell” was lowered into place. Once that was complete, and more fit checks verified the hardware matched the blueprints, a protective nose cone was placed over the spacecraft’s folded parachute, followed by attachment to the cruise stage that will power Mars 2020 during its seven-month trip. The stack then was rotated back to its original position for attachment of the lander’s heat shield.

The completion of stacking clears the way for acoustic vibration testing to make sure the spacecraft is up to the sound and shaking of launch followed by thermal vacuum chamber testing to expose the craft to a simulated space environment.

“Nothing is static with this mission,” said Gruel. “After the acoustic and thermal vac tests, the stacked spacecraft is returned to the assembly building for de-stack, then more testing and more work. Until the hold-down bolts on the Atlas rocket blow and our rover is headed to Mars in July of 2020, there is almost always something being assembled, tested or modified.”