The rover makes its first tracks through Chile's Atacama Desert. Credit: ESA/RAL Space
With a landscape uncannily similar to the surface of the Red Planet, there was no better place than Chile’s Atacama Desert for ESA to test drive the latest incarnation of the agency’s proposed Mars rover.
This week’s trial, the Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover (SAFER), gave the ESA team experience in remotely operating a Mars rover prototype with scientific instruments onboard.
It is one of a spate of new probes journeying to Mars, including NASA's Perseverance rover.
Before the trial, the team meticulously surveyed the area in search of an ideal spot to let the rover loose. Michel van Winnendael oversaw the operation,
“During the past few days we have been busy preparing for the actual trial,” he said. “
A number of sites have been visited, based on guidance provided by Chilean geologist Prof. Guillermo Chong.
“Our team geologist, Derek Pullan of the University of Leicester, has been exploring the area looking for similar sites to the kind of martian locations we would employ the same instruments on.
The local team settled on a consensus choice – which we have christened ‘SAFER Valley’."
The trial was part of ESA’s ExoMars programme, with the rover, known as Bridget, testing scientific instruments designed to help search for the best locations to drill and collect subsurface soil samples.
ESA plan on sending a rover to Mars in 2018 and hope to unearth signs of past or present life in these subsurface samples, sheltered from surface radiation and oxidising chemicals.
Bridget was fitted with a trio of prototype instruments including a panoramic camera providing 3D terrain imagery, a close-up camera for high-resolution imaging, and a radar capable of seeing through the surface to the soil below.
According to van Winnendael some debugging and manual interventions were needed along the way.
“Nevertheless, after a long working day that lasted until sunset, the data collected by the instruments were sent back to the control centre,” he said.