Mars 2020 Rover Heat Shield Flaw Won't Stop Lander Mission Launch Next Week

The heat shield that was supposed to protect NASA's next Mars rover during its hazardous landing on the red planet failed during testing, according to an announcement from the agency on Thursday. That failure, however, shouldn't delay the mission's 2020 launch.

The same type of shield is installed on another Mars mission, a lander called InSight due to take off on May 5, but that mission should be unaffected by the crack in the Mars 2020 heat shield, which was detected on April 12. The lander does use essentially the same shield, but its equipment has been double-checked and NASA personnel are confident it should hold up during the landing, scheduled for late November.

"[The failure] did cause a little bit of a fire drill a couple weeks ago when they did uncover that," Mars InSight primary investigator William "Bruce" Banerdt, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told Newsweek. "When something goes wrong on one of these other missions it always causes us to go back," to confirm the same problem won't occur again.

The same style of heat shield has been used to land the Curiosity rover currently on Mars, when it performed without any trouble.

"We do use a lot of the same techniques for landing on Mars," as the Mars 2020 mission does, Banerdt said of InSight. The landing process will take about six and a half minutes all told.

The Mars InSight lander on April 8, during its final preparations for launch from California. Gene Blevins/Reuters

Heat shields are a crucial component of the first stage of landing, when a spacecraft hurdles through a planet's atmosphere at speeds as high as 12,500 miles per hour. In the case of Mars InSight and 2020, the heat shield protects the science robot by essentially bearing the brunt of the fiery entry by itself, burning up in the process.

According to NASA's statement about the Mars 2020 shield, the agency plans to build a replacement for the flawed part over the next year or so, using the cracked shield for further testing in the meantime.

InSight's shield is already safely installed on the spacecraft, which has been loaded onto a rocket in preparation for launch on or after May 5. Regardless of what day precisely the spacecraft launches, it will land on the surface of Mars on November 26—the ultimate test of the heat shield.