Search, rover

A UK-designed roving vehicle being developed to search Mars for signs of life could be launched in 2009.

Researchers at the University of Kingston said last week that they have completed design work on the rover, called Vanguard, and a proposal to send it to Mars will be submitted to the European Space Agency this week.

A prototype of Vanguard could also be built later this summer by consortium partners Qinetiq and German research agency DLR.

Vanguard is one of a number of bids to supply a robotic rover for ESA’s flagship ExoMars mission to discover life and water resources on the red planet.

ESA is planning several missions to Mars over the next 20 years as part of its Aurora programme, which could lead to a manned mission to Mars.

The rover, which will form part of a lander sent to the planet, will use the same orbiter technology as ESA’s Mars Express mission, which is due to be launched on 2 June this year.

Project leader Dr Alex Ellery came up with the idea for the rover while at a meeting to discuss possible missions following Beagle 2, the UK Martian lander being carried to the planet on the Mars Express.

‘Travelling to Mars the probe’s 65kg lander would detach from the orbiter craft and descend to the surface using parachutes and airbags, like Beagle 2. But once it reached its target in the Gusev crater the 30kg rover section of the lander would uncouple and be able to move across the surface,’ he said.

The rover will carry three drills, known as moles, which will be placed at different sites on the planet’s surface. Each mole, controlled and powered by a tether linking it to the rover, will then drill down to 5m.

The moles must drill this far down in order to go below the planet’s oxidising soil layer, which kills any life and could be as much as 3m deep.

The device will use various instruments, including spectroscopes, which will analyse the properties of reflected laser light to determine the chemicals present in the soil.

As the mole drills down, laser light passed through an optical fibre in the tether will be reflected back by soil at the drill’s tip, and this light will then be analysed for the presence of living organic matter.

Each bore hole created will subsequently be closed off with a cap to prevent any ice contained within the soil deep underground being exposed to the Martian atmosphere and turning to vapour. Water vapour collected by these caps may prove to be one method of ‘water mining’ used in future manned missions, said Ellery.

Once each mole has reached its required depth and the analysis has been completed, it will be cut loose and the rover will proceed to the next location.

The rover has been designed and tested in a virtual Martian landscape at the university’s school of engineering.

Note: Russia and the US agreed last week to joint robotic missions to Mars and other planets. The first will be a lander to visit Mars. A similar project began 10 years ago involving a US probe, Russian booster rocket and Russian descent module. But work was halted due to a shortage of funds. At this week’s meeting it was also decided that Russia would increase its contribution to the International Space Station and be able to tender for US space contracts.