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Metal Puzzle at JPL Begins Coming Together to Form the Mars 2020 Spacecraft

Next year, the new era of humanity’s exploration of Mars begins. From 2020 onwards, we’ll know more than ever before about the Red Planet, and we’ll also start our shy attempts at terraforming the planet. And it will all be made possible by machines.
Assembling of the Mars 2020 spacecraft 1 photo
The most important piece of cargo the mission will carry to Mars and in essence the single reason the mission exists is the still unnamed, brand new rover that will set out to explore the reddish dusty plains.

The rover will be tasked with an array of missions never performed before, from determining the mineralogy of the surface to the production of oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide.

But before it gets to all that, the rover will have to reach Mars. It will depart Earth on top of an Atlas V rocket, which will place it into orbit. From there, it will continue its trip inside a spacecraft that has just begun coming together at NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, California.

In the months preceding April, the floor of JPL’s High Bay 1 got filled with pieces, parts, and components that started being assembled. Called stacking, the procedure required the use of “a hyper-detailed plan for what goes where and when.”

First, engineers placed the descent stage on a surrogate rover. Then, the back shell was lowered into place. After that, the parachute nose cone, the cruise stage, and finally the heat shield. In between them, countless bolts.

"Stacking is an important milestone in mission development, because as good as our computer models are, we still need to put it together to show that the bolt holes line up and everything fits together," said David Gruel, JPL assembly manager.

"It is a great feeling for the entire project when we see the stack sitting there waiting to go for the next part of its journey, which will eventually lead to a launch pad at the Cape Canaveral in July of next year."

Up next for the assembled spacecraft is acoustic testing, needed to see whether all the pieces are firmly attached to one another.

The Mars 2020 mission is scheduled to depart in July or August next year, depending on weather conditions. After a few months of space travel, the spacecraft and its cargo will reach its destination in February 2021.

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