The Mars Perseverance rover is nearing the end of its seven-month interplanetary journey, with touchdown on the Red Planet coming Feb. 18. This is peak science that should make Americans excited and proud. Especially kids. So to mark the event, Mattel is commemorating Perseverance as a Hot Wheels car.
"We want the car to be out there so kids have it in their hands when the actual rover lands in February," said Manson Cheung, sculptor and lead 3D modeler for Mattel Hot Wheels. "We want kids to be like, 'Oh, I have the rover in my hand, and I can see it on Mars,' so there is a connection for the kids, not only with Hot Wheels, but space as well."
Landings on Mars are always spectacular, as Perseverance's cousin Curiosity proved eight years ago in this video of its descent. Just like Curiosity (which is still on the job, after 3,000 days and 15 miles of exploration), Perseverance will plunge into Mars' atmosphere in what NASA calls "seven minutes of terror." After the rover's fiery entry, it will jettison its aeroshell heat shield and deploy a parachute. In its final landing sequence, a "sky crane" will fire retrorockets and lower Perseverance to the surface, then disconnect and fly out of the way, leaving the car-sized rover (10 feet long, 9 feet wide, 2,260 pounds) ready for action. It all sounds crazy-complex, but it worked like a charm when Curiosity did it. There is some pretty cool animation of the maneuver at the slick NASA/JPL mission page.
If the six-wheeled rover survives all that and hits its navigational target, it will then explore Jezero Crater, near the equator, which once contained a lake that could have been teeming with life. The mission: Look for signs of ancient microbial life in rocks and soil, and preserve them in sample tubes for a future flight that would rendezvous with Perseverance and return the samples to Earth.
We'll even get to hear what Mars sounds like. And Perseverance will deploy the Mars Helicopter. The little craft will spin its rotors furiously in hopes of flight in Mars' thin atmosphere. NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are calling the helicopter a "technology demonstration" of its miniaturized parts, rather than a key element of the rover's mission, but it's a cool thing to try. If it actually works, the copter could provide us with the first interplanetary drone photography.
Bookmark this YouTube link, where you'll be able to tune in on Feb. 18 for livestream coverage of the landing.
Getting back to the Hot Wheels model, it will be a version of Perseverance — though not exactly. Turns out, it's a bit of a retread. Mattel created a Hot Wheels version of Curiosity back in 2012-14, and when it came time to work up a Perseverance model, Mattel's designers consulted with JPL engineers and decided the old mold was good to go again. The two rovers don't look exactly alike — there are differences in their onboard science instruments, wheels and a redesigned robotic arm — but at 1:64th scale, the differences aren't so much that you'd notice.
The model will have a rotating camera mast, and its wheels will appear to be soiled red from its explorations.
The Perseverance toy is the latest in a long line of Hot Wheels celebrating NASA's exploits, going back at least as far as the 1979 Space Shuttle Ground Support Hiway Hauler. Mattel has also issued Action Packs for the Mars Sojourner mission in 1997, John Glenn's return to space at age 77 aboard the Shuttle Discovery, and the Galileo probe to Jupiter in 1999.
No word yet on whether there will be a Lego Perseverance, but the rover's design would lend itself nicely to Lego brick construction.
Expect the Hot Wheels Mars Perseverance to hit stores any day now. It retails for $1.09 — unless you're a JPL Mars mission team member. Even though they already get to play with the best toys in the solar system, Mattel is giving them their Hot Wheels for free.