In July, Nasa will launch its latest ambitious mission to Mars, as it lays the groundwork for a manned mission in the near future. An Atlas V-541 rocket will carry a new rover to the Red Planet.
Once it touches down nine months later, the rover – which builds on technology developed for its predecessor, Curiosity – will use an array of high-tech instruments and 23 cameras to scour the planet for evidence of past microbial life, and collect samples to be returned to Earth by a later mission. Unlike previous rovers, this one will carry a drone designed for the Martian atmosphere.
Each of the rover’s six wheels is 52.5cm in diameter – slightly larger than the wheels fitted to previous rover, Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012. Each wheel has its own motor, and they’re attached to the rover via titanium suspension with multiple pivots and struts that distribute its weight evenly.
The Mars rover will be carried inside a specially designed spacecraft. Here, Nasa engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, prepare the vessel for an acoustic test, which blasts it with noise at up to 150 decibels, which will replicate the vibrations of a rocket launch.
The spacecraft has two sections, which will separate before it enters Mars’ orbit. This Nasa engineer is checking the backshell, which protects the cargo from heat damage. After carrying its payload through the Martian atmosphere, the craft will hover above the surface, lowering the rover on a tether.
Here, Nasa engineers ready the spacecraft for eight days of thermal vacuum tests at the JPL’s Space Simulator Facility. This 25-metre tall chamber creates a nearly airless environment, chilled to -129°C, for the closest possible approximation of space. Powerful xenon lamps are used to simulate the Sun’s rays.
To choose a landing site, Nasa relied on images collected by the Mars Global Surveyor Spacecraft, which created a topographic map of the planet in the late 1990s by bouncing a low-powered laser beam off the surface to measure the height of the terrain. This map shows four key landing sites under consideration.
Ultimately, it was decided that the mission will touch down at the Jezero Crater, once the site of a deep lake fed by a number of rivers. This map shows the abundance of clay-like minerals (in green), which tend to preserve organic matter, making the area a promising site to look for evidence of ancient microbial life.
Science on wheels
This artist’s impression shows what the rover should look like once it’s in operation on the Martian surface with all its sensors and cameras attached. It will be able to measure temperature, wind speed, pressure, humidity, and dust size and shape. A ground-penetrating radar will analyse the subsurface of the planet.
Life on Mars
The eventual goal of Nasa’s missions to the Red Planet is to support a potential manned mission in the 2030s. The rover is carrying equipment which, if it works, could convert some of the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen – but it’s likely that any initial colonists will live in sealed pods like these.
Ready for takeoff
The Mars Helicopter Scout, shown here in a Nasa visualisation, is a small experimental drone that will accompany the rover, as an early proof of concept for unmanned aerial flights on other planets. It has a downward facing camera, and will navigate with the aid of a solar tracker during its 30-day test.
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