A Rover’s First Miles

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Sometime either in the near future or the near past, JPL’s next rover will begin its journey to Mars.  For over five years, JPL has been planning, designing, building, and testing the Mars 2020 mission; the target towards launch this upcoming July.  It is essentially a redo on the continued successful Mars Science Laboratory rover commonly known as Curiosity.  Mars 2020 (which will get it’s own fun name soon) has been our flagship program for as long as I have been here.  I even blogged about it last June:

Mars 2020 is Coming

The assembly took a few months a mid-last year, testing a few more months until the beginning of this year, and now they are ready for the next stage.  A cross-country road trip.

Mars 2020 will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on a date yet to be made public but likely around mid-July.  To get the mission to Florida, they boxed everything up and put the mission on the smoothest rides they could get.  The mission’s departure date, arrival date, route, and progress isn’t made public just in case there are security risks; however, here on the lab, we are pretty aware of the increased activity in the high bay where it was assembled and the funny looking trucks coming and going from the area.

Getting the mission to Flordia isn’t as easy as you might think.  For starters, there’s a lot to it.  The rover, which is the size of a small SUV, is pretty bulky even when it’s in a stowed condition like it is now.  There are three other components that have to go with it.  The heat shield attaches below the rover for entry into the Mars atmosphere.  The rover will be slowed to the surface using a unit called the ‘sky crane’; which uses a series of parachutes, a lowering crane, and thrusters to place the rover gently on the Martian surface undamaged.  Then the cruise stage, which is essentially the propulsion system used for course corrections between Earth and Mars.  When the mission arrives at the Cape, all of that hardware would need to be tested and checked out before the final assembly begins.  The testing and assembly require fixturing and other hardware, so there are trucks and trucks just full of ground support equipment.

I say trucks, but that is just a guess.  There would definitely be trucks leaving JPL because nothing else would work around here to carry anything out of the lab.  The challenge with any spaceflight hardware is that they are pretty sensitive to vibrations.  That’s why it likely won’t go by plane.  Flying, whether you notice it or not, is constant shaking even when there is no turbulence.  Sure, the mission will see a fair bit of vibration on the launch, but that’s a couple minutes – not four or five hours.  Usually, the hardware is only flown in its final assembled condition if there isn’t a better option (like flying overseas).  Sometimes, the hardware is transported by boat simply because even that is less of a stress on hardware than by car, but that’s usually just amongst the gulf states.

I guess I like to picture that the mission is riding in a truck there because it makes for a great visual.  A convoy of space hardware in containers running hard across the open road.  I could even see it being like Mad Max: Fury Road complete with a guy strung up playing a guitar shooting fire from its end.  Then again, I still love the idea of The Great American Road Trip.  I’ve personally driven coast-to-coast five times and driven in every state in the country, love what I see when I do it.  I’m even considering making the drive myself to watch the launch this July, with the pup but without the flame-thrower guitarist.

Adventure awaits for our Rover.  This trip is the first of many many long miles passing by thousands and thousands of people who will wish it well on it’s journey.  Sure it will be on the back of a vehicle, but soon enough it will be on the top of a rocket.  After that, he ventures out on his own on a planet that we can only dream about standing on.

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