NASA’s Mars 2020 rover passes first driving test on road to red planet

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover takes its first steps in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, auto-navigating obstacles, turning in place and demonstrating its hazard-avoidance ability. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With launch just seven months away, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover passed its first driving test on 17 December, demonstrating the six-wheel nuclear-powered spacecraft can auto-navigate around obstacles, climb over relatively large obstructions and manoeuvre as required.

“Mars 2020 has earned its driver’s license,” said Rich Rieber, the lead mobility systems engineer for the Mars 2020 project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “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. This is a major milestone for Mars 2020.”

The new rover is scheduled for launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Florida on 17 July. If all goes well, the spacecraft will be lowered from a rocket-powered “sky crane” to the floor of Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021. Once on the surface, Mars 2020 will search for evidence of past microbial life, study the planet’s climate and geology and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth on a future mission.

To accomplish its science objects, Mars 2020 is expected to rove an average of 200 metres (650 feet) per day. That’s just a little less than the current record for a single day’s travel, 214 metres (702 feet) set by the Opportunity rover.

Similar in appearance to NASA’s Curiosity rover, Mars 2020 features higher-resolution wide-field navigation cameras, an additional computer to process images and build maps, a more sophisticated auto-navigation system and redesigned, much tough wheels better able to resist damage from sharp rocks.

During its driving test at JPL, the rover spent more than 10 hours steering, turning and driving forward and backward in 1-metre (3-foot) increments over small ramps. Scientists also tested a ground-penetrating radar instrument.

“A rover needs to rove, and Mars 2020 did that,” said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager. “We can’t wait to put some red Martian dirt under its wheels.”