NASA has revealed the wheels it’s just bolted onto the Perseverance Rover, the new Mars assault robot it plans to send to the red planet in July as part of the Mars 2020 mission.
Wheels matter because NASA’s Curiosity rover has had trouble keeping a grip on Mars. As we reported in 2017, Curiosity has been popping unintentional wheelies as its six wheels struggle over rocks and sand. While a software patch delivered the robot a new a traction control algorithm that keeps it grounded and lessens wear on wheels, the vehicle's wheels have holes and cracks thanks to pressure produced when rolling over sharp rocks.
Those holes are a worry because the rover doesn’t carry a spare and even if it did, good luck finding someone to fit it!
Hence NASA’s new design, which the space agency has described as featuring 48 gently curved treads. That’s double the number of Curiosity’s 24 chevron-shaped treads.
“Extensive testing in the Mars Yard at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built the rover and manages operations, has shown these treads better withstand the pressure from sharp rocks and grip just as well or better than Curiosity's when driving on sand,” the space agency wrote. Which should mean the rover can find nice places from which to unleash its lasers and other instruments.
Mars 2020 is due to launch between July 17th and August 5th this year. The mission will attempt to land on February 18th, 2021, using an improved version of the “sky crane” that landed Curiosity in 2012. Before that machine does its thing, Perseverance will descend beneath a parachute that’s also recently been fitted to the robot.
It’s a might impressive chute. As NASA explains: “Tasked with slowing the heaviest payload in the history of Mars exploration from Mach 1.7 to about 200 mph (320 kph) during the rover's landing on Feb., 18, 2021, the 194 pounds (88 kilograms) of nylon, Technora and Kevlar fibers are packed so tightly into a 20-inch-wide (50-centimeter-wide) aluminum cylinder that it is as dense as oak wood. When deployed at about 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the Martian surface, the chute will take about a half-second to fully inflate its 70.5-foot-wide (21.5-meter-wide) canopy.”
Perseverance is bringing a buddy to Mars, too, in the form of a small drone helicopter that will be used to test the viability of flight on Mars. The ‘copter is equipped with cameras, too, so hopefully we’ll get some fabulous footage! ®