Mars 2020 Rover builds momentum via contract awards

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NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is making progress with the build up of Mars 2020 Rover, with contract awards for instrumentation and hardware. Following the recent announcement Space Systems Loral (SSL) will design and build the camera focus mechanisms, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has been tasked with the design and manufacture the Skycrane descent brake.

Mars 2020 Rover:

Announced in 2012, the next large Rover to wander a lonely path on the Red Planet will follow the development and design path utilized via the experiences gained via the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) architecture that successfully carried the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface – a process that should result in saving costs and lowering associated mission risks.

It will also sport improvements thanks to the data gained via Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars.

Improvements will include advances in the supersonic aerodynamics resolution and backshell measurement, improved near-surface thermal resolution and improved spatial thermal resolution.

2014-09-02 11_04_27-www.nasa.gov_sites_default_files_files_Green_Joint_PSD_HEO_TAGGED.pdfHowever, it is the 2020 Rover’s Entry/Descent/Landing (EDL) refinements that could allow for a “precision” landing on the Red Planet.

Any potential increase in the landing site accuracy will be some feat, given Curiosity successfully targeted a landing ellipse area at Gale Crater that was just 25km by 20km, refined down to 20km by 7km.

This is in striking contrast to the much larger 150 by 20km (93 by 12mile) landing ellipses used for the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity back in 2004.

To accomplish such a feat, Mars Science Laboratory engineers designed a new high-precision EDL system.

This consisted of six different spacecraft configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices, the largest supersonic parachute ever designed and manufactured, and more than 500,000 lines of code to execute the required maneuvers to safely ease Curiosity on to the surface.

For the 2020 Rover, the path toward touchdown will be similar, employing the four main phases of EDL: Guided Entry, Parachute Descent, Powered Descent, and Sky Crane landing.

However, per the presentation to the NAC, the team for the next Rover is studying the inclusion of improved Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN).

The refinements hold the potential “to land on high priority scientific targets previously out of reach, with a shorter drive,” as some of the examples as to why the 2020 Mars Rover mission “offers many important advances relative to MSL”, according to JPL.

2016-05-02-230618SNC will be a part of that landing, with its Descent Brake Mechanism part of the contract award that the company announced on Monday.

The DBM will control the speed of the tethered, car-sized rover as it is gently lowered to the surface of Mars from the SkyCrane.

SNC also designed and manufactured the DBM for Curiosity’s successful touchdown in 2012.

“SNC has been supporting NASA’s Mars Exploration Programs and missions since 1992, through the delivery of highly reliable and complex systems,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area.

“We are proud of our long and successful history of delivering mission-critical hardware for some of the most challenging interplanetary missions. We look forward to maintaining our long-standing collaborative relationship with NASA and JPL as they continue to push the boundaries of exploration with each increasingly ambitious mission.”

SNC are best known for its hugely popular Dream Chaser spacecraft, which is currently preparing for new tests under the CRS2 contract. However, they are also a busy constructor of satellite hardware.

2014-09-02 11_05_50-www.nasa.gov_sites_default_files_files_Green_Joint_PSD_HEO_TAGGED.pdfNotably, the DBM award will result in the 13th time SNC has provided hardware for spacecraft orbiting or landing on Mars; including multiple planetary gears, camera actuators and battery thermal control devices for Spirit and Opportunity – the latter of which is still functioning after 12 years of surface operation, well beyond the expected mission duration.

SSL are also joining in on the 2020 Rover project via information provided in its own contract award release.

MDA US Systems, a division of MDA managed by SSL, will design and build the camera focus mechanisms for the NASA-JPL Mars 2020 Rover instrument, named SHERLOC.

The release states that SHERLOC will be used to research the surface of Mars and to support the selection of return samples. However, a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission is not officially on NASA’s books, as much as NASA teams have been evaluating potential approaches for such a task.

“It is an honor to have this opportunity to contribute to the MARS 2020 mission,” noted Nick Zello, Director, Emerging Markets Operations. “SSL provides a unique combination of spacecraft, robotics, and other systems and mechanisms, and we believe our space hardware heritage, design creativity, and responsiveness provide a compelling value for our partners.”

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The company is deeply involved with deep space projects for NASA, namely in the field of complex Space Mechanisms and robotics for extreme environments such as the surface of Mars.

2016-05-02-230800The focus mechanism for SHERLOC is also the second contract award that the company announced for hardware on the NASA-JPL Mars 2020 Program.

The previous contract was announced in February, relating to the design and build of the robotic Sample Handling Assembly (SHA).

The SHA robotic arm will be attached within the forward end of the Mars 2020 rover, which will investigate a site on Mars that is thought to have once been habitable. The arm will be part of an Adaptive Caching Assembly which will manipulate, assess, encapsulate, store, and release collected Martian soil and rock samples.

“SSL robotics have the capability to provide extreme accuracy and the cleanliness required for working with soil and rock samples,” added the company.

“The SHA arm for JPL will be designed to operate under extreme temperature variations within a dirty and dusty environment. The SSL hardware will be used for engineering testing, qualification testing, and deployment on Mars.”

SSL also recently announced other work with JPL and is the industry partner for a potential NASA Discovery Mission to the asteroid Psyche and is participating in a first phase study for a spacecraft bus for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.

(Images: Via NASA, NASA JPL and L2).

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