Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH
www.wpafb.af.mil/afrl

Mars rovers are sophisticated, multi-instrumented pieces of equipment that travel over the surface of the Red Planet recording data, performing mechanical tasks, and essentially serving as moving laboratories. Therefore, project engineers need to ensure that the rover is well-protected for entry into the planet's often inhospitable environment.

When a rover is deployed onto the Martian surface, it is released from an atmospheric entry vehicle, where it parachutes down onto the planet's surface. This entry is particularly hazardous, as blowing sand and gravel pose tremendous risks. This debris can strike the surface of the rover, potentially damging the critical protective surface coatings of the vehicle.

At the request of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and project partners, AFRL recently concluded a series of tests in the Particle Erosion Test Facility, located in the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate's Coatings, Corrosion, and Erosion Laboratory. AFRL experts evaluated the effects of dust, particulates, and small rocks on the protective surface coatings of the Mars 2020 rover vehicle.

In the Particle Erosion Test Facility (“sand-rig”), AFRL researchers took coated test specimens and blasted them with particulate matter that ideally would match conditions experienced during the exploratory mission. Researchers performed two distinct test events. In one set of tests, the team used a finer-grain media to batter specimens at speeds of up to 500 mph. In the other set, an instrument called a gravelometer was utilized to propel larger, gravel-sized rocks toward the candidate materials. Throughout the test event, the team was replicating potentially the most extreme conditions that the rover would experience during the entry process.

JPL provided the team with test parameters and specifications, and AFRL was able to design, plan, and successfully implement the testing that NASA requested. The information gathered from these tests will help project designers understand the durability of the materials and make the necessary adjustments, if any.

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This article first appeared in the September, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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