Desert trial for ESA Mars rover
Next week will see ESA’s most ambitious planetary rover test yet. Robotic exploration of a Mars-like desert in South America will be overseen from the UK, providing experience for future missions to the Red Planet.
The rover faces the desolate Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the closest terrestrial matches for Mars. Among the driest places on Earth, it lacks any vegetation and its red–brown soil and rocks make it look even more like Mars.
The aim is to build up experience in operating rovers on a planet, which requires a very different way of working from a satellite mission.
For added pressure on the rover’s remote overseers – based at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Harwell, UK, next to ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications – each day of the five-day test will be treated as equivalent to two Mars days, or ‘sols’.
For each sol they will first downlink data then prepare a set of commands for the next sol that the rover will then carry out on its own.
The trial is intended to develop technologies and expertise for future Mars missions in general, but for added realism it is using ESA’s 2018 ExoMars rover as its ‘reference mission’.
An early prototype of the six-wheeled ExoMars rover will be put through its paces, fitted with prototypes of three of its scientific instruments: a panoramic camera for stereo 3D imaging, a ground-penetrating radar to probe subsurface geology, and a close-up imager for studying subsurface samples to a resolution of a thousandth of a millimetre.
These three instruments will work together to select a sample site with outcrops of bedrock beside looser material. A human-operated hand drill will gather underground samples for the rover to examine – although this human intervention will remain invisible to the remote operators.
“This field trial is about optimising the use of typical instruments and equipment aboard a Mars rover and generating a set of commands for the rover to execute the following day,” explains Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, project for ESA.
Image credit: ESA-Michel van Winnendael