Watch live as NASA engineers build an alien-hunting, nuclear-powered Mars rover that's slated to launch next year

Bolt by bolt, wheel by wheel, and scientific instrument by scientific instrument, NASA's next big mission to Mars is coming together inside a sterile room in California. Now, thanks to a camera installed in that room, you can watch engineers assemble the car-size, 2,314-pound (1,050-kilogram) rover. The vehicle is named Mars 2020 since it's scheduled to launch toward the red planet in July of next year. The rover should land in an expansive impact crater called Jezero, where liquid water once flowed, about seven months after departing Earth.

Mars 2020 will use a suite of high-tech tools to scout for signs of ancient alien microbes. The robot will have a laser blaster to analyze interesting rocks from afar, for example, and a helicopter to survey its surroundings for promising places to explore.

NASA said, to show progress on its roughly $2.1 billion investment, NASA installed a webcam with a live, bird's-eye view of the rover as it takes shape at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. You can watch engineers and technicians assemble and test the rover before it embarks next year on one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever designed.

Once it's completed, Mars 2020 - which grade-school students will soon rename will also have a machine designed to generate oxygen from the thin Martian air (which could prove to be a boon for future crewed missions to Mars). Perhaps most important, a drill will help it probe into soil and rock, collect samples, and stash them in canisters.n

NASA said, future missions could potentially return these samples to Earth. That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars.

The video feed of the rover's construction, which you can watch below, has run nearly 24 hours a day since mid-June. NASA hosts live web chats about the build Monday through Thursday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET. (If there's a test drive or other special activity, the agency hosts an extra web chat.)

So far, the footage has shown workers attach the rover's wheels, robotic arm, and head-like mast to its chassis.

Engineers most recently installed what's called the SuperCam on the mast, the laser-equipped device can blast interesting targets and analyze their chemistry from about 20 feet away. Just before Mars 2020's launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA will also work with the Department of Energy to install a radioisotope thermoelectric generator or RTG.

The RTG is the part of the rover that generates energy. The device will be fueled by a rare, human-made nuclear material called plutonium-238, and it converts a portion of the heat released by the decaying plutonium into electricity. Such devices can power spacecraft for decades, though NASA expects Mars 2020 to last about one year.

Mars 2020 is a more advanced and ambitious follow-up mission to its near-twin, the Curiosity rover.

The new rover is slated to arrive in Jezero Crater and begin its mission on February 21, 2021, but it will first have to survive the trip to the Martian surface and a harrowing final descent that engineers call the seven minutes of terror.

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