Unless breakdowns occur and tests fail, it's all systems go for the Mars rover in 2020.
In a press release on April 18, NASA confirmed it's on track with the rover launch to the Red Planet, which is scheduled between July 17 and Aug. 5, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
For the past months, its engineers and scientists worked in a spacecraft assembling facility, also known as the clean room, in Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. There, they built the primary components that will make up the entry launch system, including a surrogate rover.
"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," noted David Gruel, the manager for assembly, test, and launch operations.
To make sure all nuts and bolts are secured and parts fit perfectly together, they used a system called stacking.
How Stacking Works
The team already completed the stacking process on April 3.
For the first phase of stacking, the rocket-powered descent stage sat above the surrogate rover. It serves as a stand-in for the real one, which is already integrated and tested along with the rest of the stacked parts.
Once all the parts lined up and the tests and checks were okay, a gantry cane lowered the back shell. It will protect the rover once it begins to enter the Martian atmosphere.
The team then performed another round of testing and checking to ensure everything fit perfectly before they attached the parachute nose cone. It will keep the parachute, which helps slows down the rover's descent into the surface, safe.
In the last few steps, the crew placed the cruise stage, which would bring the rover to Mars over a seven-month period.
They then turned the entire system to the side so they could connect the mating points of the descent and the cruise stages before returning it to its original position.
Lastly, they placed the heat shield, which will eventually face Mars atmosphere in an oblate position to help it slow down.
Tests Not Over
Stacking the parts is just a part of the entire process. The stack already underwent different simulations and tests. These included an acoustic testing, which simulated the sound waves during the launch. The team would then have to check for any rattled or loose bolts and components.
After securing everything, the system then proceeds to a thermal vacuum test, which will help assess how it will hold up during its voyage to Mars while in flight-like conditions.
There's no rest for the wicked, however.
"Until the hold-down bolts on the Atlas rocket blow and our rover is headed to Mars in July of 2020, there is almost always something being assembled, tested or modified," said Gruel.
These are all necessary to ensure it completes its mission goals, which is to drill holes, search for signs of life, and assess the environment as potential human habitat.