NASA Tests Mars 2020 Robotic Arm With ‘Biceps Curls’

Slowly but surely, the Mars 2020 rover is taking shape at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Engineers have attached some of the rover’s many cameras, its wheels, and now it’s time to give its robotic arm a test run. This arm will have to do some heavy lifting on the red planet, so NASA is having it do some biceps curls on Earth. It’s actually studying how the rover will maneuver its hefty sensor turret, but the action looks a whole lot like the rover pumping iron. 

The Mars 2020 rover will have a 7-foot (2.1 meters) robotic arm similar to the one on Curiosity. It sports five electrical motors and five joints: the shoulder azimuth, shoulder elevation, elbow, wrist, and turret. NASA has to make sure it all works perfectly before launch because the arm isn’t just there for pumping iron.

At the end of the rover’s arm, engineers have mounted a raft of important tools and sensors like the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman Luminescence for Organics Chemicals (SHERLOC) and Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). The arm is also home to the WATSON camera, which will provide us with Curiosity-style selfies of Mars 2020. We certainly can’t have that fail. 

The instrument package at the end of the arm weighs in at 88 pounds (40 kilograms) here on Earth. The new test, which you can see in video form below, was JPL’s first opportunity to see how the arm behaved with all the components connected. The arm moved smoothly between a deployed and stowed configuration. The arm will only weigh about a third as much on Mars, but the team is still making sure it’s robust enough to operate under Earth gravity. A great deal of Mars 2020’s science will depend on that arm reaching out and touching the red planet with its sensors and percussive drill. 

NASA still has a lot of work ahead of it before the rover can head off in search of adventure. If everything goes as planned. Mars 2020 will launch from Earth in July 2020 during an advantageous alignment of Earth and Mars. It will reach Mars in February 2021 to begin its one-year mission (687 Earth days). If Mars 2020 is anything like Curiosity, on which it is based, this rover will outlast the initial mission duration.

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