April 19th, 2019

Things Are Stacking up for NASA’s Mars 2020 Spacecraft

For the past few months, the clean room floor in High Bay 1 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has been covered in parts, components and test equipment for the Mars 2020 spacecraft, scheduled for launch toward the Red Planet in July of 2020. But over the past few weeks, some of these components – the spacecraft-rocket-laden landing system and even the stand-in for the rover (christened “surrogate-rover”) – have seemingly disappeared.

In reality, they are still there, tucked neatly into the entry capsule, as they will be when it’s time for launch. The procedure is known as vehicle stacking and involves a hyper-detailed plan for what goes where and when.

“One of our main jobs is to make sure the rover and all the hardware that is required to get the rover from here on Earth to the surface of Mars fits inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket, which gives us about 15 feet [5 meters] of width to work with,” said David Gruel, assembly, test and launch operations (ATLO) manager for Mars 2020 at JPL.

The first step is to place the rocket-powered descent stage on top of the surrogate rover (the real rover is being integrated and tested in tandem with the spacecraft stack). Then, when all the holes line up and everything is attached, checked and re-checked again, the back shell is lowered over them via gantry crane.

“That crane has lifted almost every spacecraft that’s come through JPL since Mariner,” said Gruel. “To safely lift the large pieces of the Mars 2020 spacecraft, we utilize a dozen technicians and engineers.”

March 29th, 2019

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Completes Flight Tests

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect the flight model (the actual vehicle going to the Red Planet), inside the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.62-meter-wide) vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 1, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since the Wright brothers first took to the skies of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Dec. 17, 1903, first flights have been important milestones in the life of any vehicle designed for air travel. After all, it’s one thing to design an aircraft and make it fly on paper – or computer. It is quite another to put all the pieces together and watch them get off the ground.

In late January 2019, all the pieces making up the flight model (actual vehicle going to the Red Planet) of NASA’s Mars Helicopter were put to the test.

Weighing in at no more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter is a technology demonstration project currently going through the rigorous verification process certifying it for Mars.

The majority of the testing the flight model is going through had to do with demonstrating how it can operate on Mars, including how it performs at Mars-like temperatures. Can the helicopter survive – and function – in cold temperatures, including nights with temperatures as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius)?

All this testing is geared towards February 2021, when the helicopter will reach the surface of the Red Planet, firmly nestled under the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. A few months later, it will be deployed and test flights (up to 90 seconds long) will begin – the first from the surface of another world.

February 6th, 2019

Motors on Mars: The technology being sent to explore Mars

Artist’s impression of the Mars helicopter

The US space agency, NASA, has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds to send the first aerial images (not taken by a satellite) of Mars back to Earth.

For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30km. Also, taking the reduced Martian gravity into account, the helicopter needs to be very light (1.8kg) and can only carry small batteries.

The components used therefore must be extremely energy-efficient. Six of maxon motors’ 10mm diameter DCX precision micro motors, which have been used in previous Mars missions, will be used to move the swashplate, adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, to control the vehicle.

The propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment, working closely with maxon engineers, under contract from JPL.

“Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud,” says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.

December 3rd, 2018

Five planned missions to Mars

An artist’s impression of SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Rocket. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.

November 29th, 2018

Opinion: Mars Beckons

Niv Bavarsky

The science and technology behind NASA’s latest space explorer to land on Mars are so awe-inducing that it’s hardly surprising when scientists commenting on the triumph drop their usual jargon to speak like excited schoolchildren.

“It’s nice and dirty; I like that,” was how Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator behind the InSight mission, reacted when, shortly after setting down Monday on the flat and featureless Martian plain known as the Elysium Planitia, the lander beamed back an image speckled with red dust. “This image is actually a really good argument for why you put a dust cover on a camera. Good choice, right?”

Unlike the [rovers], InSight — Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is meant to stay in one spot and deploy instruments to measure marsquakes (yes, on Earth they’re “earthquakes”) in order to learn about what’s going on in the innards of the planet. One gizmo will take Mars’s temperature by hammering itself 16 feet below the surface. Deploying the instruments alone is expected to take two months, and the entire mission is meant to last a Martian year, roughly two Earth years.

What for? A random sampling of comments from the public suggests not everyone is convinced that digging on Mars is money well spent. But the basic answer is that whether it’s practical or not, humans will continue to explore the heavens so long as the moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond fire our imagination and curiosity. What happened in the earliest days of the universe? How were Earth and its fellow planets formed? And the question of questions: Is there life out there?

October 29th, 2018

Third ASPIRE Test Confirms Mars 2020 Parachute a Go

This high-definition image was taken on Sept. 7, 2018, during the third and final test flight of the ASPIRE payload. It was the fastest inflation of this size parachute in history and created a peak load of almost 70,000 pounds of force.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the early hours of Sept. 7, NASA broke a world record.

Less than 2 minutes after the launch of a 58-foot-tall (17.7-meter) Black Brant IX sounding rocket, a payload separated and began its dive back through Earth’s atmosphere. When onboard sensors determined the payload had reached the appropriate height and Mach number (38 kilometers altitude, Mach 1.8), the payload deployed a parachute. Within four-tenths of a second, the 180-pound parachute billowed out from being a solid cylinder to being fully inflated.

It was the fastest inflation in history of a parachute this size and created a peak load of almost 70,000 pounds of force.

This wasn’t just any parachute. The mass of nylon, Technora and Kevlar fibers that make up the parachute will play an integral part in landing NASA’s state-of-the-art Mars 2020 rover on the Red Planet in February 2021. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) project conducted a series of sounding rocket tests to help decide which parachute design to use on the Mars 2020 mission.

Two different parachutes were evaluated during ASPIRE. The first test flight carried almost an exact copy of the parachute used to land NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory successfully on the Red Planet in 2012. The second and third tests carried chutes of similar dimensions but reinforced with stronger materials and stitching.

On Oct. 3, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission management and members of its Entry, Descent, and Landing team met at JPL in Pasadena, California, and determined that the strengthened parachute had passed its tests and was ready for its Martian debut.

“Mars 2020 will be carrying the heaviest payload yet to the surface of Mars, and like all our prior Mars missions, we only have one parachute and it has to work,” said John McNamee, project manager of Mars 2020 at JPL. “The ASPIRE tests have shown in remarkable detail how our parachute will react when it is first deployed into a supersonic flow high above Mars. And let me tell you, it looks beautiful.”

October 17th, 2018

Scientists to Debate Landing Site for Next Mars Rover

The Mars 2020 Rover: This artist’s rendition depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outrcrop. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Hundreds of scientists and Mars-exploration enthusiasts will convene in a hotel ballroom just north of Los Angeles later this week to present, discuss and deliberate the future landing site for NASA’s next Red Planet rover – Mars 2020. The three-day workshop is the fourth and final in a series designed to ensure NASA receives the broadest range of data and opinion from the scientific community before the Agency chooses where to send the new rover.

The Mars 2020 mission is tasked with not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life. The landing site for Mars 2020 is of great interest to the planetary community because, among the rover’s new medley of science gear for surface exploration, it carries a sample system that will collect rock and soil samples and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth. The next Mars landing, after Mars 2020, could very well be a vehicle that would retrieve these Mars 2020 samples.

“The Mars 2020 landing site could set the stage for Mars exploration for the next decade,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “I’m looking forward to the spirited debate and critical input from the science and engineering community. Whichever landing site is ultimately chosen, it may hold the very first batch of Mars soil that humans touch.”

August 8th, 2018

Aerojet Rocketdyne Delivers Power Generator for Mars 2020 Rover

Figure 4.5 from Emily Lakdawalla’s 2018 book The Design and Engineering of Curiosity

Aerojet Rocketdyne, in collaboration with Teledyne, recently delivered the electrical power generator for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL), where it will be fueled, tested and readied for flight. In addition to providing the primary power source for the rover, Aerojet Rocketdyne is also playing a critical role in spacecraft propulsion for the journey to Mars.

The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) will supply electrical power to the rover as it traverses the red planet, collecting samples for a potential return to Earth by a future mission. A similar device supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne continues to power the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the Martian surface since 2012.

The MMRTG converts heat generated by the natural decay of plutonium-238 into electricity. Radioisotope power sources, which also provide heat to a spacecraft’s components, are typically used on long-duration deep space missions, where the great distance from the sun dramatically reduces the effectiveness of solar arrays.

“We’re best known for propulsion, but our role in supporting space programs certainly does not end there,” said Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president. “We’ve built lithium-ion batteries for the International Space Station, provide nuclear generators for deep space missions like the Mars rovers, and are building the electrical power system for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded a DOE contract in 2003 to develop and produce MMRTGs. In addition to the MMRTG for the Curiosity rover, the DOE authorized assembly of two additional flight units: one for Mars 2020 and one for a future mission. One unit will be fueled for Mars 2020, and the other unit will remain unfueled and in reserve for a future mission.

August 1st, 2018

AeroVironment draws on high-altitude drone development to help make a helicopter for Mars

Wahid Nawabi, chief executive of AeroVironment Inc., holds a scale model of one of the composite blades that will be used to propel NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Helicopter through the thin Martian atmosphere. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A Southern California company that specializes in small drones for the military has an opportunity to contribute to aviation history: the first aerial flight on Mars.

AeroVironment Inc. is making the rotors, landing gear and material to hold solar panels for the Mars Helicopter project, which will be assembled at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. The device will deploy from NASA’s latest Mars rover in 2020, taking high-resolution images that can determine where the slower-wheeled vehicle should head next.

The drone helicopter will look somewhat similar to a hobbyist device you might see whiz by on the beach. But it will incorporate years of research into the challenges of flying in a thin atmosphere that has similar density to about 100,000 feet above Earth’s sea level.

“There’s been a lot of doubts about being able to even fly in the atmosphere of Mars,” said Wahid Nawabi, chief executive of the Monrovia-based company. “It’s been over 100 years since the Kitty Hawk moment. This is the next event.”

May 31st, 2018

Flying in Martian Skies: NASA’s 2020 Rover Mission Will Include Tiny Helicopter

Artist’s conception of the autonomous, drone-like Mars Helicopter, which will be sent to Mars along with the 2020 rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Excitement has been building for NASA’s next rover mission to Mars, scheduled to launch sometime in 2020. Although it looks a lot like the current Curiosity rover, its mission will be to search directly for possible evidence of past life. Curiosity, on the other hand, is studying the ancient habitability of Gale crater, which we now know used to hold a lake or series of lakes, focusing more on geology than biology. And now the upcoming 2020 mission just got even better – NASA has approved the inclusion of a tiny drone-like helicopter to accompany the rover!

This is something never done before, and assuming it’s successful, will be the first time that Mars has been robotically explored by something other than an orbiter, lander or rover.

The Mars Helicopter will be a small, drone-like autonomous rotorcraft, designed specifically for Mars’ very thin atmosphere; it will provide a unique and exciting new way to see the Martian landscape as never before – a bird’s-eye view, if you will. And of course, it’s just very cool.