NASA has passed its driving test on Mars. The test was mostly a forward and backward maneuver with a six wheeled pirouette.

NASA rover takes test drive on Mars in 2020It’s autonomous navigation system was also part of the test on Mars. Like a toddler’s first tentative steps, this is an important milestone.

According to NASA “This was a significant test for the rover on the Mars. The rover passed the test and has earned its driver’s license. The next time it drives will be on the surface of Mars.

Lead mobility systems engineer for Mars 2020 Rich Rieber said “Mars 2020 has earned its driver’s license”.

He further said “The test unambiguously proved that the rover can operate under its own weight and demonstrated many of the autonomous-navigation functions for the first time. This is a major milestone for Mars 2020.”

Though not exactly autonomous, the 2020 rover is designed to make more of its own driving decisions than previous rovers. It has high-resolution, wide field of view navigation cameras, part of the group of 23 cameras it’s equipped with. That’s more than any previous rover. The rover has extra computer power that it’ll use to process images and make maps. It also has more sophisticated auto-navigation software.

The 2020 rover will cover a lot of ground during its projected 668 sol (one Martian year) mission to find evidence of past microbial life on Mars. It’ll land at Jezero Crater in February 2021, and to get around on the surface of Mars, it’ll rely on redesigned aluminum wheels, each one with its own motor.

Getting a rover to Mars is a long, complicated undertaking, involving a lot of testing. Here’s the 2020 rover getting probed in a clean room. The probe measures how much light reaches each part of the rover.

Mars 2020 deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan said “To fulfill the mission’s ambitious science goals, we need the Mars 2020 rover to cover a lot of ground”.

The 2020 rover is designed to travel about 200 meters (650 ft) every Martian day. To put that into perspective, the record for the longest distance traveled by a rover in one day belongs to NASA’s Opportunity rover. It covered 214 meters (702 ft) in a single day. So 2020’s average day will be about equal to the longest distance ever traveled by a rover in one day.

Mars 2020 Project Manager John McNamee said “We can’t wait to put some red Martian dirt under its wheels.”

This latest test took place on Dec. 17th. It was a marathon 10 hour testing session that saw all of the rover’s systems working together. Not only did it drive and steer and turn in place, but it maneuvered over small ramps, to replicate some of the terrain it’ll face on Mars. Since Martian gravity is weaker than Earth’s only about 3/8ths as strong NASA expects the rover to perform well once it reaches its destination.

The rover’s wheels are arranged on a pair of legs on each side of the rover, with three wheels per leg. The leg is made out of titanium, one of the lightest and strongest materials available. Each of the aluminum wheels has 48 grousers or cleats on them, which should provide superior traction on Mars’ surface. Each wheel also has its own drive engine, and each of the front and rear wheels also have steering engines, allowing the rover to turn in place.

The wheels also have titanium spokes, which are curved and provide springy support for the 2020 rover. Together, the wheels, legs and engines are called the mobility suspension. The sophisticated system allows the rover to drive over rocks that are about thigh-high on a person, or 1.5 times the wheel diameter. (78 cm; 31 inches)

The 2020 rover will land in the Jezero Crater on Mars. It’s the sight of a long-gone paleo-lake. There’s an abundance of clay minerals there, as well as a fossilized river delta created by an ancient river that flowed into the crater.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is building the 2020 rover, and they’ll operate it as well. The 2020 rover is part of a larger program that aims to see humans on Mars. That program includes the Artemis Program, which intends to land humans on the Moon again by 2024, including the first woman on the Moon. NASA also plans to establish a sustained human presence there by 2028, as one of the stepping stones to a crewed mission to Mars.