A few months back, we saw the Mars 2020 Rover come to life after it was given a new set of six wheels and arms at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. This month, on October 8, the rover was finally able to support its own weight on its aluminum wheels. Today, the JPL announced the feat and released a timelapse broadcasting the same as well:
Vis-à-vis the feat, Ben Riggs, a mechanical systems engineer working on the Mars 2020 rover remarked:
"After years of design, analysis and testing, it is fantastic to see the rover on her wheels for the first time [...] The whole team looks forward to seeing her in the same configuration on Mars in the not too distant future"
In its press release, NASA also detailed the construction of the aluminum wheels and the support structure for them on the rover:
The rover's legs (the black tubing visible above the wheels) are composed of titanium, while the wheels are made of aluminum. Measuring 20.7 inches (52.5 centimeters) in diameter and machined with traction-providing cleats, or grousers, the wheels are engineering models that will be replaced with flight models next year. Every wheel has its own motor. The two front and two rear wheels also have individual steering motors that enable the vehicle to turn a full 360 degrees in place.
Moreover, the space agency encapsulated the underlying 'rocker-bogie' suspension system on the rover as well. A slight hint to the stability and the adaptability of the vehicle can also be seen when it touches the ground in the video above:
When driving over uneven terrain, the rover's "rocker-bogie" suspension system - called that because of its multiple pivot points and struts - maintains a relatively constant weight on each wheel for stability. Rover drivers avoid terrain that would cause the vehicle to tilt more than 30 degrees, but even so, the rover can handle a 45-degree tilt in any direction without tipping over. It can also roll over obstacles and through depressions the size of its wheels.
Given the time left in the rover's launch, which is set for July 2020 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from the Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the rover is definitely in the last stages of its development. Indeed, a couple of months back, NASA launched a campaign inviting K-12 students in U.S. home, private, and public schools to name the Mars 2020 rover. At the time of writing this article, there is still one more week before submissions close for the competition.
Interestingly, when the rover touches down on Mars at the Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, it will be "the first spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration with the ability to accurately re-target its point of touch down during the landing sequence."
The 2020 Mars rover standing tall on its wheels means that we inch ever so close to the rover's July 2020 launch. After touch down, the rover will endeavor on its Mars 2020 Mission, driving the exploration of ancient habitable conditions, discovering potential microbial life, and more on the red planet.