Space

ESA's prototype ExoMars rover completes testing in Chile

Bridget spent six "Martian" days in the desert (Image: ESA)
Bridget spent six "Martian" days in the desert (Image: ESA)
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Manual digging was needed to simulate sample drilling (Image: ESA)
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Manual digging was needed to simulate sample drilling (Image: ESA)
Bridget spent six "Martian" days in the desert (Image: ESA)
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Bridget spent six "Martian" days in the desert (Image: ESA)
The ground crew swept their footprints to deprive the RCC of navigation clues (Image: ESA)
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The ground crew swept their footprints to deprive the RCC of navigation clues (Image: ESA)
Bridget was tested in the Atacama Desert in Chile (Image: ESA)
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Bridget was tested in the Atacama Desert in Chile (Image: ESA)
The Atacama provided realistic hazards, such as rocks (Image: ESA)
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The Atacama provided realistic hazards, such as rocks (Image: ESA)
The RCC in Harwell used a giant video display wall (Image: ESA)
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The RCC in Harwell used a giant video display wall (Image: ESA)
Bridget undergoing pretest trials (Image: ESA)
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Bridget undergoing pretest trials (Image: ESA)
Bridget is based on an early ExoMars prototype (Image: ESA)
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Bridget is based on an early ExoMars prototype (Image: ESA)
Bridget carries three prototype sensors (Image: ESA)
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Bridget carries three prototype sensors (Image: ESA)
Bridget being tested near the Paranal Observatory (Image: ESA)
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Bridget being tested near the Paranal Observatory (Image: ESA)
The Atacama was chosen as an analog for Mars (Image: Elie Allouis /Astrium)
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The Atacama was chosen as an analog for Mars (Image: Elie Allouis /Astrium)
The RCC video wall being used for daily briefings of ground crew (Image: ESA)
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The RCC video wall being used for daily briefings of ground crew (Image: ESA)
Bridget's equipment and support vehicle (Image: Sev Gunes-Lasnet/RAL Space)
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Bridget's equipment and support vehicle (Image: Sev Gunes-Lasnet/RAL Space)
Bridget's instruments being calibrated (Image: Elie Allouis/Astrium)
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Bridget's instruments being calibrated (Image: Elie Allouis/Astrium)
Calibrating panoramic camera and ground radar (Image: Elie Allouis/Astrium)
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Calibrating panoramic camera and ground radar (Image: Elie Allouis/Astrium)
Bridget's interior (Image: M van Winnendael/ESA)
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Bridget's interior (Image: M van Winnendael/ESA)
Yellow circle indicating rover start position and red circles are the two ways for it to proceed (Image: RAL Space)
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Yellow circle indicating rover start position and red circles are the two ways for it to proceed (Image: RAL Space)
Sweeping away footprints (Image: RAL Space)
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Sweeping away footprints (Image: RAL Space)
RCC's digital view of the test (Image: ESA)
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RCC's digital view of the test (Image: ESA)

ESA’s Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover (SAFER) has completed six “Martian days” of tests roaming Chile’s Atacama Desert. Nicknamed "Bridget," the prototype of the space agency’s ExoMars rover is part of a program to gain experience in building and operating planetary rovers in anticipation of the 2018 ESA Mars mission.

Bridget was built by Astrium in Stevenage, UK, and designed using ExoMars as a reference mission. It was equipped with three prototype instruments for exploring the Atacama, which is the driest, most lifeless spot on Earth, and an analog for the harsh Martian environment.

The instrument package consisted of a panoramic camera, a close-up imager, and a ground-penetrating radar. The final ExoMars rover will also include a robotic drill for collecting soil samples, which Bridget lacks, so this was simulated by a support team falling back on a pick and shovel. This was done not only to collect soil samples for Bridget to study, but also to corroborate the findings of the ground radar.

Though a ground crew was on hand, the test itself was controlled from the Remote Control Centre (RCC) at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Harwell, UK, where scientists and engineers followed the rover using a large video wall that displayed data from the rover mixed with 3D maps that were made using a UAV to simulate images taken from an orbiter. The idea was to create conditions where the RCC has to rely on data similar to what would come back from a real Mars mission. This was taken to the point of the ground crew using a broom to remove their footprints, so they couldn't be used as navigational clues by mission control.

RCC's digital view of the test (Image: ESA)
RCC's digital view of the test (Image: ESA)

"SAFER’s purpose is really to build up experience in rover field testing, so the remote team worked as realistically as possible," says Michel van Winnendael, who oversaw the test for ESA. "They had to plan good observation points for the instruments and safe paths for navigation. Once a plan was prepared it was dispatched to the local team in the field who then forwarded it to the rover, while trying to remain as ‘invisible’ as possible for the remote operators."

According to ESA, using the Atacama provided a strong element of realism as the rover had to contend with high winds, dust devils, and projecting rocks. In addition, the local geology proved similar to what the team expect to find on the Red Planet. "At our second simulated drill location the field team found a layer of rock starting at a depth of 60 cm," says Sev Gunes-Lasnet, project manager for RAL Space. "This comes close to the kind of features the team was looking for: analogues for locations on Mars which could hold traces of past or present life."

The video below shows the 3D representation of the test area as seen from the RCC.

Source: ESA

Remote control team's view of SAFER rover

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