Mars 2020 Mission Dealt Blow By Cracked Heat Shield, Meant To Protect Rover From Extremes Of Atmospheric Entry

Mars
toyotomi / Thinkstock (Getty Images)

NASA’s next Mars rover mission is potentially delayed due to a crack that formed in the rover’s heat shield.

The Mars 2020 rover, scheduled for launch in July 2020, is equipped with upgraded technology, including a heat shield that is meant to protect it during its descent through the Martian atmosphere. It is designed to withstand approximately 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. While undergoing testing, it formed a crack that spread across the circumference of the rover.

Replacing the shield is an obvious financial setback, but could also postpone the launch date, depending on what caused it to crack. According to NPR, developers at Lockheed Martin, along with NASA engineers, are examining the shield and may end up making changes to its design. Although NASA seems sure that the replacement shield will not prolong the Mars 2020 rover departure, a recent complication with the new James Webb Space Telescope has delayed its launch by almost a year.

Mars 2020 rover’s shield is made of phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA), which has been successfully used on other atmospheric entry missions, such as SpaceX’s Dragon. The material is both lightweight and heat resistant, making it an ideal option. The following video from NASA’s Ames Research Center explains how this heat shield material works:

The state-of-the-art PICA heat shield is just one of Mars 2020 rover’s many components. According to NASA, the car-sized, six-wheeled rover also has a panoramic camera with stereoscopic imaging for geologic surveying called Mastcam-Z. Also designed for geologic study is the PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and the RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment).

One of the main purposes of the Mars 2020 rover mission is to look for signs of life that may have existed on Mars in the past, and its ability to possibly support living organisms in the future. With those goals in mind, the rover is equipped with a SuperCam to analyze chemical compositions, SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), and MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer), which measures atmospheric conditions. Probably the most interesting technological addition is the MOXIE (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment), which will attempt to transform Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen!

Mars 2020 rover
  NASA/JPL-Caltech

Only time will tell if the Mars 2020 rover will be ready to launch July 2020.