Jet Propulsion Lab engineers install three right-side wheels on the Mars 2020 rover.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s amazing what a set of wheels can do. What was once a vague chunk of metal, wires, and circuit boards is now finally starting to look like an actual rover.

We are now just a little over a year away from the launch of the Mars 2020 Mission, which will see NASA’s new rover reach the Red Planet on February 18, 2021. Once in Jezero Crater, the rover will search for signs of prior habitability and evidence of past microbial life, collect rock and surface samples, and perform some groundwork for a human mission to Mars, including an oxygen production test.

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The Mars 2020 launch window from Cape Canaveral is between July 17 to August 5, 2020. That’s not terribly long from now, and accordingly, the rover is really starting to take shape. A major milestone was came on June 13, when engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California installed the vehicle’s suspension system and six wheels, as NASA reported in a press release.

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“Now that’s a Mars rover,” David Gruel, the Mars 2020 assembly, test, and launch operations manager at JPL, said in the release. “With the suspension on, not only does it look like a rover, but we have almost all our big-ticket items for integration in our rearview mirror—if our rover had one.”

Indeed, preparations for the mission are now moving swiftly. Over the next several weeks, the engineers are expecting to install the rover’s robotic arms, its mast-mounted camera, and the Sample Caching System (SCS), the latter of which contains 17 separate motors. The SCS is designed to collect rocks and dirt and place the samples into sealed containers that will be dropped onto the surface. A future mission would retrieve the samples and deliver them to Earth for analysis.

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JPL engineers preparing the right-side legs for integration with the Mars 2020 rover.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The six wheels that were installed on June 13, it’s important to point out, are temporary stand-ins for the real thing. The engineers will swap them out for the actual flight versions at some point next year.

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The rover’s aluminum wheels measure 52.5 centimeters (20.7 inches) in diameter. Each has its own motor (six-wheel drive, baby!) and 48 cleats, or grouses, machined onto the surface, which will provide for excellent traction, whether the rover is rolling across sandy terrain or jagged rocks. The two wheels up front and the two wheels at rear have their own steering motors, which will allow the rover to turn a full 360 degrees while standing in place.

The tube-like legs that support the wheels are constructed from titanium, and they’re similar to high-end bicycle frames in how they’re manufactured, according to NASA. The vehicle’s suspension system is known as a “rocker-bogie” system, having multiple pivot points and struts. When on uneven terrain, this configuration will enable the vehicle to maintain similar weights on each wheel to minimize tilt and keep the rover stable.

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During the mission, NASA won’t allow the rover to venture on terrain with more than a 30-degree tilt. That said, the Mars 2020 rover is designed to handle a tilt of 45 degrees in any direction without tipping over, which is quite amazing—that’s half of a 90-degree angle!

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Fun fact: You can send your name to the Red Planet with the Mars 2020 mission. I’ve already got my boarding pass (above), and you can get yours here.