So Far So Good for Mars 2020

So Far So Good for Mars 2020

The coronavirus has not impacted the Mars 2020 mission, at least not yet, according to the head of NASA’s planetary science division.  Spacecraft can only be launched to Mars every 26 months when the planets are aligned properly, so missing this summer’s launch window would be unfortunate.

Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, gave the good news to the science community in a “Town Hall” meeting today that was conducted virtually because the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference was cancelled due to COVID-19.

Glaze said she did not expect the mission to be impacted even if Kennedy Space Center (KSC), where the spacecraft is being readied for launch in July, is moved to Stage 4 of NASA’s Response Framework.  Personnel from KSC, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA headquarters, and the Department of Energy are all hard at work on the mission.  Mars 2020, recently named Perseverance, was built at JPL.  DOE provides the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Power Generator, or MMRTG, that provides nuclear power for the spacecraft and its systems.

Mars 2020 is built on the same design as the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012.

The good news on Mars 2020 is in contrast to the announcement this evening that work on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft at two other NASA facilities, Stennis Space Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF), is being suspended because of COVID-19.

Last night, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine issued an upbeat message that the coronavirus had not significantly affected NASA operations. He called out several programs, including Mars 2020 and SLS, as examples of how work was continuing even though all of NASA’s facilities had been placed in Stage 3 of NASA’s Response Framework, meaning mandatory telework for all but mission-essential personnel.  That clearly changed in the past 24 hours for Stennis and MAF, which is now at Stage 4 where the only personnel allowed on site are to maintain safety and security.

Glaze said today that Mars 2020 is one of two science programs that have the agency’s highest priority as it copes with the coronavirus.  The other probably is the James Webb Space Telescope, which Bridenstine also included in his list last night.  It is in the integration and testing phase at Northrop Grumman in California, with launch expected in March 2021.

Earth and Mars are aligned properly every 26 months, but some opportunities are better than others.  This year, 2020, is a good one and other countries also are planning to send probes.  One, however, has been delayed until 2022.  The European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos announced last week that their ExoMars spacecraft needed more testing and was not ready for launch this summer.  The coronavirus was identified as a contributing cause because technicians cannot travel to where they need to be.

China is planning to launch an orbiter/lander/rover and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to send an orbiter.  Neither has provided any updates suggesting coronavirus-related or other delays.  China suffered a launch failure earlier this week of a new version of its Long March-7 rocket, but has not released details of what went wrong.  It shares some commonalities with the Long March-5, which will launch the Mars probe.  UAE’s Hope probe will be launched by a Japanese H-IIA rocket.

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