Two U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jets completed a 3,700-kilometre (2,300-mile) coast-to-coast flight 12 February, delivering NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, its interplanetary cruise stage and “sky crane” descent stage to Cape Canaveral in Florida for final preparations before launch to the red planet on 17 July.
“Our rover has left the only home it has ever known,” said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The 2020 family here at JPL is a little sad to see it go, but we’re even more proud knowing that the next time our rover takes to the skies, it will be headed to Mars.”
Engineers planned to re-assemble the rover and its components in the same “clean room” facility at the Kennedy Space Center where the Curiosity rover was processed for flight. The Mars 2020 rover should be enclosed in its protective aeroshell in June and delivered to launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where it will be mounted atop an Atlas 5 rocket.
Assuming an on-time launch 17 July, the rover will be lowered by its rocket-powered sky crane descent stage to a landing in Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021. The spacecraft is equipped with a drill to collect core samples that will be cached on the surface for retrieval by another rover after launch in the 2026 timeframe.
A rocket carried by the NASA “fetch rover” mission will boost the recovered samples into Mars orbit where they will be captured by a European Space Agency craft and returned to Earth in the early 2030s for detailed laboratory analysis.
Mars 2020 also will search for biosignatures, indicators of past microbial life, study the red planet’s environment in extraordinary detail and test experimental hardware designed to extract oxygen from the martian atmosphere.