NASA’s upcoming Mars rover is coming together piece by piece as engineers put the finishing touches on its cameras and flying scout drone. Mars 2020 is looking much more like a rover today, though. NASA has attached the wheels and suspension to the starboard side of the frame. We’re one step closer to a functional rover now, and hopefully, it will prove even more durable than Curiosity.
The new component is formally known as the mobility suspension or “rocker-bogie” system. It consists of flexible legs connected to three wheels. The support leg is composed of titanium tubing similar to what you’d find on high-end road bikes. The rover will eventually have an identical apparatus on the port side, giving it a total of six wheels like Curiosity. Naturally, NASA decided to base the Mars 2020 design on Curiosity, which had been a huge success. However, the wheel design is one of the few parts of Curiosity that needed a rework.
NASA has found the surface of Mars somewhat “sharper” than it expected. Curiosity’s machined aluminum wheels have been dented and punctured by rocks on the Martian surface, and engineers worry that one or more of them will fail and strand the robot. Mars 2020 is about 25 percent heavier than Curiosity, so Curiosity-style wheels would have been even worse on Mars 2020.
To mitigate wheel damage, Mars 2020 will have a more robust design (20.7 inches, or 52.5 centimeters in diameter) with thicker walls and stronger aluminum. They’re also a bit wider and have a larger diameter. A series of titanium spokes will improve internal support as well. The wheels seen in the above image are engineering samples — NASA will replace them with rigorously tested final versions in the coming months.
NASA expects to install the rover’s robotic arm in the coming weeks, and after that, the mast-mounted SuperCam will be locked into place. The rover will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July of 2020. About seven months later, it will land in Jezero Crater on Mars with a sky crane system similar to the one used by Curiosity. The rover will presumably get a real name before then so we can stop calling it “Mars 2020.”