ESA Has a Playground for Mars Rovers to Learn how to Explore the Red Planet
NASA makes successful rover missions seem mundane. Spirit and Opportunity were wildly successful, and Curiosity and Perseverance would both be considered successes even if they stopped working today. But complex missions don’t succeed without rigorous testing.
The ESA takes that lesson to heart, and when it comes to their Mars rover, they’ve built a ‘rover playground’ to test it in.
The ESA’s rover is named after Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist whose work helped lead to the discovery of DNA, though she received little credit for it during her lifetime. The Rosalind Franklin rover is part of the ESA’s ExoMars program, the second mission in the program after the Trace Gas Orbiter.
The Rosalind Franklin rover will drill deeper into Mars than ever to collect subsurface samples in hopes of finding biomarkers. It’ll land at Oxia Planum, a wide, clay-bearing plain full of hydrated minerals that dates back to Mars’ Noachian period. Interestingly, Oxia Planum was a potential landing site for NASA’s Perseverance Rover, which ended up landing at Jezero Crater. Oxia Planum also shows signs of volcanic activity, and scientists are hopeful that volcanic material covering the surface will have helped preserve biomarkers.
It’s a long journey from deciding on a mission to the excitement of launch day, and this is especially true of complex rovers like Franklin. The Rosalind Franklin is similar to NASA’s Perseverance in many ways, but in one extremely important aspect, it’s superior: it can drill down 2 meters below the surface to collect samples. But it won’t be easy.
A successful rover mission depends on iterative design. Design, build, test, over and over. And it’s not just the rover’s drive system that goes through this process, it’s also instruments, instrument mounts and locations, robotic arms, power systems, software, and a catalogue of other elements.
The Rosalind Franklin is kept in a clean room, and most of the testing is done with Amalia, a replica of the Rosalind Franklin rover. The ESA also has a half-scale rover called ExoTer (ExoMars Test Rover.)
Much of the ESA’s rover testing takes place at their Mars Yard facility. It’s a 9m2 testing area covered in different types of gravel and rock, mimicking what the rover will encounter on Mars. The Yard is dedicated to testing the rover’s locomotion, traction, and navigation. Sensors and cameras measure the rover’s activities precisely, and that helps engineers assess its performance in fine detail.
The testing has been going on for years.
The Mars Yard is part of the ESA’s Planetary Robotics Facility. The Facility is located in the Netherlands and is one of 35 ESA facilities focused on different aspects of space engineering. The Mars Yard is just one of the testing facilities at the Planetary Robotics Facility.
The Rosalind Franklin rover suffered a setback when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. The ESA ended their cooperation with Roscosmos, which was a partner in the ExoMars program. Now, the ESA is committed to completing all aspects of the mission itself and hopes to launch it sometime in 2028.
Mars is a prime target for exobiology. The planet still exhibits some erosional, tectonic, and volcanic activity, and it’s halfway between a world frozen in the past and a planet that’s still evolving. It still contains its primordial fingerprint.
Mars has the oldest sedimentary record in the Solar System, and if there is evidence of life, it could be preserved in the rock record from 3 billion years ago. Hopefully, it’s present at Oxia Planum, possibly preserved under a volcanic cap, and accessible to Rosalind Franklin’s drill.
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