The U.S. Air Force is helping the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory prepare for its next Mars rover mission in 2020.
The Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Particle Erosion Test Facility in Ohio is conducting tests that could help ensure the external coating of the rover is protected from dust, particles, and small rocks.
According to a Pentagon report from the AFRL, the facility is informally referred to as the “sand-rig,” and researchers there blast objects with different particles that match what may be experienced in different exploratory environments. To simulate Mars, the researchers launched fine-grain objects at speeds up to 500 mph.
“The entry into the atmosphere is the most destructive aspect of the journey,” AFRL Erosion Team Lead Joseph Shumaker said in the report. “So that’s what we were tasked to look at.
“Ideally, we tried to mimic the damage that would be observed on Mars. It’s fun trying to think about how we are going to imitate the damage of Mars rocks,” he said.
NASA is currently working towards a return mission to the moon, as well as an eventual manned mission to Mars, under directives from President Donald Trump. The mission is expected to help the United States develop new technologies in advanced materials, new energy, farming, space flight, unmanned vehicles, and others.
In December 2017, Trump said, “The directive I am signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery. It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, worlds beyond.”
According to NASA, the rover for the 2020 mission is roughly the size of a car, at about 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall.