NASA Looks to Replace Cracked Heat Shield on Mars 2020 Rover

One of the rover's most protective pieces of equipment will have to be replaced after suffering a sizable crack during testing.
Shelby Rogers

NASA recently announced it would have to spend a bit more time fixing an unexpected crack in its Mars 2020 rover. The space agency's engineers found a crack in the structure of the heat shield earlier this month. 

However, the organization remains optimistic in that building a new shield and replacing the current one won't affect the mission's launch. Currently, NASA plans on launching the Mars 2020 rover on July 17, 2020. 

The structural tests happened at Lockheed Martin, and Lockheed Martin is also responsible for building the heat shield. NASA said the shield was "designed to subject the heat shield to forces up to 20 percent greater than those expected during entry into the Martian atmosphere."

“While the fracture was unexpected, it represents why spaceflight hardware is tested in advance so that design changes or fixes can be implemented prior to launch,” the NASA statement said.

“After a recent Mars 2020 rover heat shield test, teams identified a fracture in the structure,” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science directorate. “I’m happy that our standard test procedures revealed the issue & allows the team to build a replacement without impacting the launch readiness date.”

The heat shield is a critical part of the Mars 2020 mission. The shield will cover the Mars 2020 rover during its trip from Earth to Mars. It's also the main protection while the craft makes its descent into the Martian atmosphere. During its descent, the temperatures outside the aeroshell are estimated to reach as hot as 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit or roughly 2,100 degrees Celsius. 

Better Equipment for a Better Understanding

The new Mars 2020 rover will use the same system and landing design as the famed Curiosity rover. However, the new rover is equipped with serious upgrades, including a new zoom lens, better wheels, and an autonomous steering software. An estimate 85 percent of the new rover is based on "heritage" hardware originally used in the Curiosity mission, NASA noted. 

Researchers will equip the rover with 42 sample tubes, including spares just in case. Mission leaders have a goal of collecting at least 31 rock and soil samples after it lands on the Mars surface. 

The NASA-led Mars 2020 mission goes beyond its US base, however. There's an international effort being placed on this mission. NASA and the European Space Agency recently signed a "statement of intent" to explore different ways the rover could bring samples from Mars back to Earth.

“The challenges of going to Mars and back demand that they are addressed by an international and commercial partnership – the best of the best,” said David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration. “At ESA, with our 22 member states and further cooperating partners, international cooperation is part of our DNA.”


“Previous Mars missions revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the red planet,” Zurbuchen said in a statement. “A sample would provide a critical leap forward in our understanding of Mars’s potential to harbor life.

“I look forward to connecting and collaborating with international and commercial partners on tackling the exciting technological challenges ahead—that would allow us to bring home a sample of Mars,” Zurbuchen said.


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