Sky-high ambitions for Aurora

Developments in the UK space programme were showcased last week at ‘From Mars to Earth’, an event that reported on progress in space exploration and Earth observation.

Astrium, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Natural Environment Research Council co-ordinated the event, which highlighted the UK’s expertise and continuing role in Aurora, Europe’s flagship exploration programme.

ESA set up the Aurora programme in 2001 to develop a long-term European plan for robotic and human exploration of the solar system, with Mars, the Moon and the asteroids as potential targets.

Keeping an eye on proceedings was Astrium’s prototype Mars rover, ‘Bridget’, which the company is using to perform feasibility studies during the design process. Last year, the company received £3.8m from ESA for the next phase of definition.

Bridget has recently acquired twin cameras, which will be used for an on-board autonomous 3D navigation system to define safe paths across the rocky, dusty surface.

The final vehicle will be aboard the ExoMars mission to characterise the biological environment on Mars, including seeking signs of past and present life, in preparation for future robotic and human missions. ExoMars will launch in 2013.

Because of the nature of the mission, the vehicle must be manufactured in a biologically clean environment to prevent contaminating ultra-sensitive biological experiments with cells and spores from Earth.

The next step is to establish the baseline for the Pasteur scientific payload. Software design has already begun on the STFC programme to create an autonomous scientist — on arriving at a particular area of interest on the Red Planet, the rover will be able to decide what experiments would be best to carry out.

Other components under development are the Mars orbiter and the descent module that will land the rover. Initially, the orbiter will act as a data relay satellite for the ExoMars rover but its life may be extended to serve future missions.

UK scientists and engineers recently received a £2m investment from STFC to aid research and development of instruments and technologies for the Mars mission.