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We Got A Sneak Peek At JPL's Mars 2020 Rover Before It Heads To Its Launch Site, And It's Rad

The Mars 2020 Rover inside the clean room at JPL in Pasadena. (Robert Garrova / LAist)
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Move over Opportunity and Spirit. It's time for the new Mars 2020 rover to step into the spotlight. On Friday, JPL gave a rare media tour to show off the interplanetary robotic vehicle to reporters inside a meticulous dust, hair and oil-free "clean room." It's the last time it will be viewed before it's shipped off to Florida for its July liftoff.

That meant this reporter had to don a full body "bunny" suit and take an air bath with jets to blow away any wayward dust or hair left on the suit.

It took a lot of time and trouble, but NASA's Dave Gruel said it's crucial to keep the rover from getting contaminated.

"It'll be a real bad day for us in the future if those samples come back from Mars and guess what? They've got my whisker in that sample," Gruel said. "That'll be bad."

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Suited up, we were guided into a vast white hangar. Inside, about the size of a Mini Cooper, was the rover itself. The layout of wires and instruments made it look like a modern art piece -- and maybe a little too delicate to spend time rolling over rocks 140 million miles away from home.

Michelle Colizzi, who's spent five years working on the mission, was one of the engineers showing us around.

Mars 2020 descent stage engineer Michelle Colizzi stands beside the craft which will lower the rover onto the surface of Mars. (Robert Garrova / LAist)

"It's very, very exciting to see all the hardware come together," she said.

Colizzi spent most of her time working on the descent stage. That's when eight rockets will slow the rover from 200 miles per hour to two miles per hour in a matter of seconds. Then a tether will lower the robot onto the surface of Mars.

"[It's] kind of a crazy idea to begin with," Colizzi said. "But the engineers executed it really well. It gives us an opportunity to actually land on the wheels, ready to start driving."

Once wheels are on the ground of Mars' Jezero crater, the rover will use high-resolution cameras, a laser and a drill to collect and analyze samples. It can do all of that thanks to the nuclear battery it will have on board.

And unlike previous missions, this will be the first rover with the goal of searching for signs of past life.

An aerial view of the clean room that houses the Mars 2020 rover at JPL in Pasadena.

Its designers hope it will be able to explore the surface of the red planet for at least one Mars year (that's about two earth years).

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The prospect has people at JPL both excited and a bit emotional.

"I've been wanting to work on things that go to space since I was in the third grade. So this is really a dream come true for me," said mechanical engineer Steve Barajas. The Mars 2020 rover will be Barajas' first robot to leave the earth nest.

If all goes as planned, this rover will get rolling in February of 2021.

And if you're bummed that "Mars 2020 rover" doesn't have the ring of say Opportunity or Spirit, don't worry, schools across the nation are competing in a Name the Rover Contest.