- NASA is building a six-wheeled, nuclear-powered Mars rover inside its Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech.
- A video camera is broadcasting footage of engineers and technicians building the vehicle, which for now is called Mars 2020.
- If all goes well, the rover will launch in July 2020, land in the Jezero Crater on Mars in February 2021, and begin scouting for alien microbes.
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Bolt by bolt, wheel by wheel, and scientific instrument by scientific instrument, NASA’s next big mission to Mars is coming together inside a sterile room in California.
The vehicle is named Mars 2020, since it’s scheduled to launch toward the red planet in July of next year. The rover should land in an expansive impact crater called Jezero, where liquid water once flowed, about seven months after departing Earth.
Mars 2020 will use a suite of high-tech tools to scout for signs of ancient alien microbes. The robot will have a laser blaster to analyze interesting rocks from afar, for example, and a helicopter to survey its surroundings for promising places to explore.
To show progress on its roughly $2.1 billion investment, NASA installed a webcam with “a live, bird’s-eye view” of the rover “as it takes shape at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California,” the agency said in an email.
“You can watch engineers and technicians assemble and test the rover before it embarks next year on one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever designed,” NASA added.
Once it’s completed, Mars 2020 – which grade-school students will soon rename – will also have a machine designed to generate oxygen from the thin Martian air (which could prove to be a boon for future crewed missions to Mars). Perhaps most important, a drill will help it probe into soil and rock, collect samples, and stash them in canisters.
“A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth,” NASA says on its website about the rover. “That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars.”
The video feed of the rover’s construction, which you can watch below, has run nearly 24 hours a day since mid-June. NASA hosts live web chats about the build Monday through Thursday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET. (If there’s a test drive or other special activity, the agency hosts an extra web chat.)
So far, the footage has shown workers attach the rover’s wheels, robotic arm, and head-like mast to its chassis.
Engineers most recently installed what’s called the “SuperCam” on the mast – the laser-equipped device can blast interesting targets and analyze their chemistry from about 20 feet away.
Just before Mars 2020’s launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA will also work with the Department of Energy to install a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG.
The RTG is the part of the rover that generates energy. The device will be fueled by a rare, human-made nuclear material called plutonium-238, and it converts a portion of the heat released by the decaying plutonium into electricity. Though NASA expects Mars 2020 to last about one year on the planet’s surface, RTGs can power spacecraft for decades.
Mars 2020 is a more advanced and ambitious follow-up mission to its near-twin, the Curiosity rover.
The new rover is slated to arrive in Jezero Crater and begin its mission on February 21, 2021. But like Curiosity and other spacecraft before it, Mars 2020 must first survive the trip the Martian surface – including a harrowing final descent that engineers sometimes call the “seven minutes of terror.”