NASA has launched dozens of missions to explore the Red Planet over the years, but the upcoming Mars 2020 Rover will be unlike any planetary explorer that has gone before it.
The new rover, which is scheduled to take off between July and August 2020 and land on Feb. 18, 2021, will feature groundbreaking Terrain-Relative Navigation (TRN) that allows the landing craft to make real-time adjustments as it descends to the Martian surface. Recently, Pursuit Aviation supported NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to test key components of this system.
Pursuit Aviation’s Airbus AStar helicopter deployed to Death Valley National Park and was equipped with an engineering model of the Lander Vision System (LVS), part of the TRN. During the test flight, the Pursuit team flew while the LVS collected and analyzed images of the ground below.
Over the course of two weeks, Pursuit conducted numerous simulation flights that included altitudes of over 17,000 feet. Because of the unusual challenges of operating a helicopter at such heights, pilot John Tamburro had to complete a rigorous training regimen. Prior to the project, Tamburro underwent altitude chamber training and studied potential physiological issues like hypoxia and decompression sickness. He also studied the atmospheric forces that could impact this unique project. All of this knowledge was key to keeping the crew and NASA’s state-of-the-art equipment safe during the mission.
LVS is a central part of the broader Terrain-Relative Navigation system, which makes it possible for NASA to land in previously inaccessible areas like the Jezero Crater.
Before Mars 2020 enters the planet’s atmosphere, orbiters will create a map of the landing site and share these images with the spacecraft. As it descends on a parachute, the spacecraft will take pictures of the surface using cameras like those tested in conjunction with Pursuit Aviation. It can then quickly compare the orbiter images with those it has captured and divert itself towards a safer landing zone if necessary.
“Mars 2020 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 JPL.
We’re looking forward to the launch and wish all those involved the best of luck with this incredible mission.
You can read more about the TRN and the additional new technologies being introduced for Mars 2020 on mars.nasa.gov.