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Simulated Martian surface ready to test ExoMars rover

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Mar 30, 2014, 23:00 UTC

Sen—Contractors for the ExoMars mission have created a simulated Martian surface in the UK to develop the technologies which will be used by the rover, scheduled to land on the Red Planet in early 2019.

The test environment, dubbed the 'Mars yard', has been built in the UK at the Stevenage site of aerospace giant and ExoMars contractor Airbus Defence and Space. The site, which measures 30 by 13 metres, has been filled with 300 tonnes of sand and littered with rocks to mimic the landscape the rover is likey to encounter once it reaches its destination. The walls of the room has even been decorated to make the rover feel as if its on the Red Planet.

The robotic lander is being designed to navigate autonomously and drive at least 70 metres a day, with the Mars yard providing a realistic training environment for development of the rover's autonomous navigation systems. The opening of the simulated Martian environment was attended by the UK Secretary of State for Business, Vince Cable and ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, Alvaro Giménez.

Mr Giménez observed: “A facility like this enables us to develop sophisticated navigation systems to ‘teach’ Mars rovers how to drive autonomously across the Red Planet. This will be a fantastic resource for the ExoMars rover team and for future missions to come.” 

Demonstration ExoMars rover

The Mars yard in Stevenage, UK. The yard simulates the martian surface, complete with rocky obstacles, providing a realistic training ground for developing rover navigation systems. Image credit: Airbus Defence and Space.

The main objective of ExoMars - a joint mission between the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos - is to explore whether life has ever existed on Mars.

The mission is divided into two parts - an orbiter and a rover. The Trace Gas Orbiter, which will search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be signs of biological or geological processes, will launch in 2016. The orbiter will be followed by the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), which will launch in 2018.

The EDM, which is ESA's first involvement in a Martian rover, will have the ability to drill up to 2 metres depth, and may pave the way for a future Mars sample-return mission in the 2020s.

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