Aeronautics giant Airbus has completed its project to recreate the surface of Mars in Stevenage, UK. The site, roughly the size of a basketball arena, is designed to test the navigation and locomotion systems of the ESA's ExoMars rover ahead of its launch in 2018.

The 30 x 13 m (98 x 42 ft) "Mars yard" required 300 tonnes (331 tons) of sand to simulate the surface of the Red Planet, and features rocky debris such as that encountered by previous rovers. The simulation has to be as realistic as possible in order to asses elements such as wear and tear on the wheels of the rover, a factor which has been a cause for concern recently with NASA's Curiosity rover, which is already operational on Mars.

"A facility like this enables us to develop sophisticated navigation systems to ‘teach’ Mars rovers how to drive autonomously across the Red Planet," said Alvaro Giménez, Director of Science and Robotic Exploration for the ESA. "This will be a fantastic resource for the ExoMars rover team and for future missions to come."

The ExoMars project is a collaboration between the ESA and the Russian Roscosmos space agency, with the overreaching goal of the program being to assess whether life ever existed on Mars. To achieve this goal, the ExoMars program is divided between 2016 and 2018 launches. The 2016 mission will take the form of a Trace Gas Orbiter, which will orbit the Red Planet studying atmospheric gasses. The 2018 mission is to be comprised of the ExoMars rover, equipped with a suite of sensors and a drill for obtaining samples.

Before launch, however, the rover's navigation and locomotion systems must be stringently tested. Due to the extreme distance between the ESA team controlling the rover and the machine itself, direct control of the ExoMars rover would be impossible. Therefore the rover will be required to navigate autonomously, using only its on-board sensors to reach pre-set destinations on the surface of Mars.

The team is hoping that the rover will be able to cover 70 m (230 ft) per day, substantially less than the 100 m (328 ft) covered by NASA's Curiosity rover. To this end, the walls and ceiling of the facility have been painted a reddish-brown color in order to create as realistic a setting as possible in which the rover can learn to navigate.

Colin Paynter, Head of Airbus Defence and Space UK, said regarding the mission that "ExoMars is a hugely fascinating program and the new yard brings us one step closer to launch."

The facility will continue to be of use once ExoMars is operational on the Red Planet, as any difficulties experienced by the mission could then be recreated in the Mars yard. This will allow the operators of the rover to consider the best course of action, without placing the actual multimillion dollar robot in harm's way.

Source: ESA

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