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Up Close With The Mars Rover


NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is almost ready to send another rover to Mars. It will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. next summer. But first, scientists in California have to pack it up and ship it across the country.

KPCC's Jacob Margolis got to pay the rover a pre-sendoff visit.

JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Before you can get even a little close to the rover, you've got to prepare yourself to visit it in the clean room - no notepads and pencils with shavings that can fly off, no makeup, like lipstick or foundation, because it might shed. You can't even wear perfumes or cologne with scent molecules that can waft through the air and land on the rover. Believe me, JPL's David Gruel is watching.

DAVID GRUEL: It would be a real bad day for us in the future if those samples come back from Mars and - guess what? - they've got my whisker in that sample. That'll be bad. Or if it's got - what's some known perfume out there? - A Kardashian perfume is sensed in the sample. That would be a bad day for us.

MARGOLIS: So it's head-to-toe clean suits and a trip to the airlock. Then you see the Mars 2020 rover, slightly bigger than your car and a lot more expensive. It looks similar to the last one, but there have been some significant upgrades. The wheels for one are more durable, and there's obviously a lot of new equipment, including some that can help scientists with one of their core missions, figure out if Mars once supported life.

Jessica Samuels is the lead flight systems engineer.

JESSICA SAMUELS: Oh, I can't wait to acquire a piece of Mars, throw it into a sample tube and see what it looks like.

MARGOLIS: This rover will actually pick up pieces of rock, test them to see if there are any indicators of past life and stick them in her medically sealed tubes so they can be tested more thoroughly for things like DNA sometime in the future.

SAMUELS: That's our future missions. We have a whole Mars program geared to retrieving the samples with a future rover and then bringing them back to Earth.

MARGOLIS: The rover's also going to analyze the atmosphere and pull out oxygen, a tool that could be used for future missions to help people breathe or create rocket fuel. But before any of that, they need to land the rover on the surface gently.

Michelle Tomey Colizzi is a mechanical engineer.

MICHELLE TOMEY COLIZZI: Entry is tough. Entry is very tough. And it's nerve-racking.

MARGOLIS: The rover's heat shield will protect it as it plummets through the atmosphere. A parachute and small engines will slow it down before it slams into the Martian surface. And then it'll hover. And finally, this multi-billion dollar rover will be lowered down by a special rope that itself took three years to make. By the way, everything down to the bolts they used had to be customized.

COLIZZI: There aren't a whole lot of assemblies that are commercial off the shelf.

MARGOLIS: For going to Mars?

COLIZZI: Yeah. I know. We wish - sometimes we do wish there was a Mars store where we can go and buy a battery unit for a rover.

MARGOLIS: Then they've got to wait because they can't get data about the rover in real time.

COLIZZI: It takes seven minutes to transfer from the vehicle near Mars to Earth. So for a seven-minute period of time, we don't know whether we've landed successfully or not.

MARGOLIS: If all goes well, the rover will be up and running sometime around February 2021.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Margolis in Pasadena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Margolis

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