Lockheed Martin developed a heat shield using a tiled Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) thermal protection system to protect the Mars 2020 rover from the intense heat during entry, descent, and landing sequences in its journey to the surface of Mars.

NASA’s next mission to Mars is Mars 2020, which will be one of the most challenging entry, descent, and landing (EDL) sequences ever attempted on that planet as the rover will land in a region laden with boulders and sand dunes. The journey will take almost seven months, and the rover is expected to spend two years on the Martian surface.

Lockheed Martin’s aeroshell is the largest ever built for a planetary mission at nearly 15 feet in diameter, and it is designed to protect the rover from temperatures of up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit during EDL. The aeroshell (combined heat shield and backshell) consists of an aluminum honeycomb structure sandwiched between graphite-epoxy face sheets and is held together with nine spring-loaded separation mechanisms. The heat shield uses a tiled Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) thermal protection system to protect from the searing temperatures. The aerodynamics of the heat shield also serves as a “brake” to help slow the spacecraft as it enters the thin atmosphere of Mars at speeds of near 12,000 mph.

“Even though we have the experience of building the nearly identical aeroshell for the Curiosity Rover, the almost 15-foot diameter composite structure was just as big a challenge to build and test 10 years later,” said Neil Tice, Mars 2020 aeroshell program manager at Lockheed Martin Space. “We’ve built every Mars aeroshell entry system for NASA of its 40 years of exploring Mars, so we pulled from that experience to build this important system.”

Lockheed Martin recently delivered the Mars 2020 rover aeroshell to the launch site, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Mars 2020 rover is in testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the mission will launch in July 2020 and land on Mars in February 2021 at the Jezero Crater.