NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission has checked off another milestone with a successful separation test of the descent stage that will deliver the six-wheeled robot to the surface of the Red Planet.
The test, which took place at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, on Sept. 28, involved using a crane to lift the large, rocket-powered descent stage away from the rover.
"Firing the pyrotechnic devices that held the rover and descent stage together and then doing the post-test inspection of the two vehicles was an all-day affair," Ryan van Schilifgaarde, a support engineer for Mars 2020 assembly at JPL, said in a statement from NASA.
Mars 2020, which will get a new name soon, is heavily based on NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars' Gale Crater since August 2012. Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 will be lowered to the Martian surface on cables by a rocket-powered sky crane, which will then fly off to intentionally crash-land a safe distance away.
The Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft will land inside the Red Planet's Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, where it will search for signs of habitable environments and evidence of past microbial life.
If all goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 rover will be the first spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration with the ability to accurately retarget its point of touchdown during the landing sequence, according to the statement.
"With this test behind us, the rover and descent stage go their separate ways for a while," van Schilifgaarde said in the statement. "Next time they are attached will be at the Cape next spring during final assembly."
However, before the Mars 2020 rover and descent stage ship off to Cape Canaveral, engineers at JPL will continue to test the rover's computers and mechanical systems under Mars-like conditions. A Surface Thermal Test, for example, will simulate the atmospheric temperatures and pressures the rover will encounter on Mars.
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