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NASA’s Mars 2020 rover completes first drive ahead of Red Planet mission

Stephen Kuper

NASA’s next Mars rover has passed its first driving test with flying colours in a preliminary assessment of its activities, which found that the rover checked all the necessary boxes as it rolled forward and backward and pirouetted in a clean room at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover completes first drive ahead of Red Planet mission
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Scheduled to launch in July or August 2020, the Mars 2020 mission will search for signs of past microbial life, characterise Mars' climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. It is scheduled to land in an area of Mars known as Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021.

The next time the Mars 2020 rover drives, it will be rolling over Martian soil.

Rich Rieber, the lead mobility systems engineer for Mars 2020, said, "Mars 2020 has earned its driver's licence. 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."

Mars 2020 is designed to make more driving decisions for itself than any previous rover. It is equipped with higher-resolution, wide-field-of-view colour navigation cameras, an extra computer "brain" for processing images and making maps, and more sophisticated auto-navigation software.

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The rover also has wheels that have been redesigned for added durability.

Katie Stack Morgan, Mars 2020 deputy project scientist, said, "To fulfil the mission's ambitious science goals, we need the Mars 2020 rover to cover a lot of ground."

All these upgrades allow the rover to average about 650 feet (200 metres) per Martian day. To put that into perspective, the longest drive in a single Martian day was 702 feet (214 metres), a record set by NASA's Opportunity rover. Mars 2020 is designed to average the current planet wide record drive distance.

In a 10-plus-hour marathon on Tuesday that demonstrated all the systems working in concert, the rover steered, turned and drove in three-foot (one-metre) increments over small ramps covered with special static-control mats.

John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager, added, "A rover needs to rove, and Mars 2020 did that yesterday. We can't wait to put some red Martian dirt under its wheels."

Since these systems performed well under Earth's gravity, engineers expect them to perform well under Mars' gravity, which is only three-eighths as strong. The rover was also able to gather data with the Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX).

JPL is building and will manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for NASA. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

Mars 2020 is part of a larger program that includes missions to the moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans.

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