While NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has gotten most of the headlines this past year, but a European-led rover mission will be placing another rover on the red planet within the decade. The ExoMars project (which NASA dropped out of due to budget constraints) will launch a rover bound for Mars in 2018 to search for signs of past life on the planet.
To prepare for the mission, the European Space Agency(ESA) this week tested its mission capabilities in one of the most Mars-like locations on Earth. The agency has taken the ExoMars rover to Chile's Atacama Desert, a super-dry, rocky landscape that's soil even resembles the surface of Mars.
The event will test the rover itself and three scientific instrument prototypes: a stereo 3D imaging camera, a subsurface radar, and an imager. ESA mission specialists will also be tested, treating the event as if the rover were already on Mars. The rover will be sent commands over the course of five days representing two Mars days ("sols).
“This field trial is about optimizing 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,” said Michel van Winnendael, head of the Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover (SAFER) project for the ESA. “Unlike satellites, planetary rovers operate in close interaction with the topography and physical properties of the planetary surface.
“This implies limited data return from the rover during relatively short communication windows, with an inherent time delay.”
(Image courtesy ESA)
Using its prototype instruments, the rover will select a sample site of loose soil. It will then be hand-loaded (by human hands) with material gathered by researchers. The field test, according to the ESA, will be used to uncover any unanticipated situations that could arise in their Mars exploration scenarios.
“Nature is very inventive in presenting situations which were not fully anticipated by those who conceived the mission," said van Winnendael. "That’s why we find it important to do field tests in a fairly representative environment.”