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2007-04-02 08:58British Council

Driving on Mars

Interplanetary robot

Mars fascinates scientists because of its similarity to Earth, and it fascinates the public because our myth of 'Martians' is a vision of life beyond Earth. The Mars adventure continues with the launch of a robot vehicle by UK scientists. It's part of project to build an 'autonomous robotic scientist' to explore the Martian surface and is key to the European Space Agency's 2011 ExoMars mission.

The six-wheeled vehicle housing a myriad of scientific instruments and detectors is the Mars rover, nicknamed 'Bridget'. Astrium, an EADS company, are developing the ExoMars rover prototype and coordinating its technologies with other UK-based institutions.

Test bed to prove the rover's stamina

Searching for a terrain similar to that found on Mars, the team took the rover to El Teide National Park in Tenerife. Lester Waugh, leading the EADS Astrium team, explains, 'The rover's not waterproof so we need good weather to test it in, but also the conditions need to be dry as any moisture affects the way the sand reacts under the wheels.'

Solar panels will supply power and radioisotope heater units will help it withstand the extreme cold on Mars. The team is optimizing the performance of the wheels, suspension, the drive system, so it doesn't dig itself in on tricky terrain.

Taking up to twenty minutes for radio signals to reach Earth demands a powerful navigation system to allow the rover to operate solo so they are also developing next generation computer software capabilities.

Maximizing productive science time

The rover will land on Mars packed to capacity with scientific gadgets designed to be as light and as small as possible. These include: a microseismometer searching for Marsquakes; an advanced meteorological system analysing the Martian weather; a wide-angled panoramic camera which will be our eyes on Mars; a Raman spectrometer providing rock analyses; even a mole to retrieve samples from beneath the surface.

The extended development time is essential for rigorous testing, as Waugh explains, 'When we put things in space we have to make sure that they'll survive the radiation environment, the extremes of heat and cold. Our science productivity is crucial, and malfunctions may affect that. The more science we get back the better justification there is for spending more money on planetary exploration.'

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