NASA unveils Mars 2020 rover

Photo: NASA Media had their only opportunity to see NASA's next Mars rover from inside.

NASA scientists unveiled yesterday the Mars 2020 rover, which sets forward for the Red Planet next year. It will examine the potential of Mars to have hosted life, its so called “biological potential”, how this planet compares to and contrasts with Earth, but will also facilitate future human missions.

The vehicle has been build up at the clean-room of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, and the first tests of the driving equipment were successful. NASA invited yesterday members of the media to glimpse the agency's Mars 2020 rover and speak with experts working on the mission. It was the media's only opportunity to see the rover from inside the clean room prior to its shipment to Cape Canaveral in February.

"It was a great opportunity for the media not only to see our work close up, but to meet some of the women and men who have dedicated several years of their careers ensuring this next Mars rover lives up to the legacy of those that were built here before it," said David Gruel, the Mars 2020 assembly, test and launch operations manager at JPL.

As NASA’s press office recalled, the clean room, also known as the Spacecraft Assembly Facility's High Bay 1, is where all four of NASA's Mars rovers were constructed. These are the microwave-oven-sized Sojourner, which landed in 1997; the golf-cart-sized Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004; and Curiosity rover, about the size of a Mini Cooper, which has been exploring the Red Planet's Mount Sharp region since 2012.

Scheduled to launch in July or August 2020, the Mars 2020 rover will land in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. There it will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize Mars' climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Both to ensure that as few Earthly microbes as possible hitch a ride to Mars and to keep out particles that could interfere with the rover's operations, High Bay 1 comes with strict cleanliness standards: Anyone entering the clean room, whether a technician or a journalist, must wear a "bunny suit," booties, a hair cover, a face mask and latex gloves. Because notepads and writing implements could shed dust and other particles, specially-approved paper and pens were provided to visiting media members on request.

In the coming weeks, engineers and technicians will pack the 2020 rover into a specially-designed container. After it arrives at the Cape, Mars 2020 will undergo final processing and testing before launch.

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