Friday, 21 June 2024

On Earth as it is on Mars

A giant hi-tech sandpit designed to mimic the surface of Mars is to be used as a test area for Europe’s first red planet rover which is being built in the UK, writes Clive Simpson.

Mars Yard, at the Stevenage site of Airbus Defence and Space, contains 300 tonnes of specially graded and coloured sand to match the surface of Mars and even has its own mission control.

The 30 x 13 m area of sand can be contoured into slopes of varying degrees of severity and its surface is sprinkled with rocks and boulders that the rover can travel over or plot a path around.

Walls, doors and all interior surfaces are painted a reddish-brown colour to reflect the background colour of Mars and realism is enhanced with backdrop panoramas of the Martian landscape captured by NASA spacecraft.

A sophisticated lighting system recreates the ambience of a typical Mars day ensuring that when navigation cameras are on test nothing is left to chance.

The control room is elevated above the test area to give operators a view across the landscape and ensure the rover’s cameras do not see the human operators which would interfere with the vision system.

Europe’s first ever Mars rover – known as ExoMars and to be launched by a Russian Proton rocket in 2018 – will have the capability to navigate up to 70 m a day without guidance from Earth.

ESA’s Alvaro Giménez, the agency’s director of science and robotic exploration, said Mars Yard would allow scientists to develop and test the craft’s sophisticated navigation systems, effectively ‘teaching’ the rover how to drive itself across the red planet.

At the official opening Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, described ExoMars as representing “the best of British high-value manufacturing”.

“It is hugely exciting that Europe’s next mission to Mars will be British built and it is incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of our investment in the European Space Agency (ESA) creating jobs here in the UK,” he said.

ExoMars – a joint project between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency – will attempt to discover whether life has ever existed on the planet by investigating the atmosphere and drilling into the surface to collect and analyse samples.

The craft, about the size of a golf buggy, will use parachutes, thrusters and damping systems to land on Mars after a nine month journey.

Rubber, an organic material, cannot be sent to Mars for fear of contamination so the rover has six 285 mm flexible metal wheels – each with three motors for steering 90 degrees left or right – allowing it to move sideways or rotate on the spot if necessary.

It will carry nine experiments to analyse the physical and chemical properties of  Martian samples and is expected to travel up to 4 km over its six month mission on the surface.

Speed is not of the essence because in good conditions and with maximum energy available through five solar panels, ExoMars will creep along at just 2 cm per second.

Colin Paynter, head of Airbus Defence and Space in the UK, said: “ExoMars is a hugely fascinating programme and the new yard brings us one step closer to launch.”

A series of three prototype rovers have been built since 2007 to evaluate the design of the locomotion and navigation systems and to perfect improvements.

Each prototype is given a nickname by the development team – first there was Bridget, then Bruno and the latest is Bryan.

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