ExoMars rover undergoes teleoperated desert tests

A rover destined for Mars is being put through its paces in Spain’s Tabernas Desert by a team controlling the vehicle from the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire.

View from Panoramic Camera (PanCam) mast imager

The ExoFiT Mars rover testing team has been using a prototype rover called ‘Charlie’ to test hardware, software and to practise science operations for the future European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars rover, which will start exploring the Red Planet in 2021.

The team has practised driving Charlie off its lander, identifying and travelling to a geological outcrop, and then taking rock samples with its drill.

“After the Earth, Mars is the most habitable planet in the Solar System, so it’s a perfect destination to explore the possibility of life on other planets, as well as the history of our own,” said Graham Turnock, CEO UK Space Agency. “These small steps to check systems in Spain provide us with confidence that ExoMars will achieve what it was designed to do.”

During testing, the ExoFiT team will assess Charlie’s individual systems including the WISDOM (Water Ice Subsurface Deposit Observation on Mars) ground penetrating radar, CLUPI (Close-Up Imager), the Panoramic Camera (PanCam) mast imager which provides 3D maps of the area around the rover, and the coring drill to take below ground samples identified by WISDOM.

Ben Dobke, Airbus project manager for ExoFiT said: “One of the primary goals of ExoFiT is the setup of efficient remote science operations. It will allow the team of instrument scientists and engineers to practice how to remotely operate and interpret the data from rover-mounted instruments.  It is set up as a blueprint to develop operational experience for both ExoMars and future robotic Mars missions.”

The Remote Control Centre (RCC) for Charlie will be hosted at STFC Harwell Mission Operation Centre in Oxfordshire, with each science team having a remote instrument operator based there.

Dr Rain Irshad, Autonomous Systems Group Leader at STFC RAL Space said: “The team at Harwell were working from limited information – we created digital maps of the terrain for them and they had the data sent each day by the rover. From this, they had to decide where the rover should go and what instruments it should use to get the most interesting science. This test-run was very similar to the way that rovers are operated on Mars”

There will be a follow-up test drive in the Atacama Desert in Chile next year.