UK-Built Mars Rover Put Through Its Paces

The Bruno rover in the Mars yard. (Credit: Astrium)

UKSA PR — Earlier this month the latest Mars rover prototype developed by UK engineers demonstrated its autonomous navigation capability in a specially constructed mock-up of a Martian landscape – a ‘Mars yard’ – at Astrium’s Stevenage site.

With work on the robot’s Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) system now finalised, this was the first public test of a technology that truly puts this rover – nicknamed Bruno – in a class of its own. This new class of rover will be able to decide on its own course across the Red Planet’s uneven, boulder-strewn and gully-pitted surface, identifying hazards such as rocks, slopes and drops, and plotting out the most appropriate route to a given destination. The human controllers simply provide the coordinates of a target location; the rover works out how best to get there, and trundles off.

Less waiting about means that Bruno will be able to spend more time usefully getting on with his mission – exploring our neighbouring planet for signs of past or even present life.

In the Mars yard tests, Bruno proved that he could recognise an insurmountable obstacle blocking the direct route to the target location (in this case a large pile of rocks), devised and followed a path to circumnavigate it step by step, and arrived successfully at his appointed destination.

He also showed that he can make real-time locomotion adjustments to correct for disturbances as he goes – steering himself to the right, for example, to compensate for being slightly deflected to the left while traversing a large rock. This constitutes a significant advance over his robotic predecessors, which could not make on-the-move path corrections like this.

The rover prototype has been developed under the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme, a collaborative undertaking with NASA for Mars exploration. The original mission envisaged two rovers, one European and one American, travelling together and descending to the same spot on the surface of the Red Planet. Lately, however, budget restrictions and programme revisions have led to a new focus on sending a single rover to investigate our neighbouring planet, with a launch slated for 2018.

Through the UK Space Agency, the UK is the second largest subscriber to the ExoMars programme. Astrium UK is leading the build of the rover and there is considerable UK involvement from a number of academic institutions, with the on-board instruments and software, and the rover’s autonomous operations.

ExoMars Background Information

ExoMars is part of the European Space Agency’s Aurora programme and lays the foundations for future human exploration of the Solar System.

Its aim is to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that may have once, and perhaps could still, support life. It will also assist in preparing for other robotic missions, including a Mars Sample Return mission, and possible future human exploration. Data from the mission will also provide invaluable input for broader studies of martian geochemistry, environmental science and exobiology – the search for evidence of life on other planets.

It is planned that ExoMars, now likely to be part of a joint ESA-NASA mission in 2018, will be one half of this two-rover mission that will traverse the surface of Mars. As the first European rover to do so it will carry a unique drill that can burrow up to two metres into the martian surface allowing the rover’s scientific instruments to analyse and sample the soil, determine its mineral content and composition, and search for evidence of whether past environments could once have harboured life.

The UK is the second largest contributor to the ExoMars mission. At the ESA ministerial meeting in November 2008, the UK confirmed extra funding to bring its contribution to €165 million. This will contribute both to the 2018 rover mission and a likely preceding orbiter mission in 2016. The UK also confirmed funding of €6.5 million to the Mars Robotic Exploration Preparation Programme component. As a result of its support, the UK is involved in many aspects of the 2018 mission and is responsible for building the rover.

Mission facts

  • The rover’s payload will be devoted to geology, geochemistry and exobiology. It will search Mars’ surface for evidence of environments that may once have supported life, and may even still do so today.
  • The 2016 mission will concentrate on orbital science observations, particularly those of the methane in Mars’ atmosphere, first detected by ESA’s Mars Express mission in 2003. The 2016 mission may also include a lander, though this is yet to be confirmed, which will demonstrate European entry, descent and landing technologies and carry out some simple science observations.
  • Mission control will be at the European Space Agency Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.
  • ExoMars will influence whether Europe contributes to the future Mars Sample Return mission.

Technology

The rover will roam around the Martian surface by using electrical power generated from its solar arrays.

The rover’s software will have a degree of ‘intelligence’ and autonomy to make certain decisions on the ground and will navigate using optical sensors.

PanCam (the UK-led panoramic camera system on the rover) will provide imagery of Mars’ surface that will allow reconstruction by 3-D digital terrain mapping. It will also provide context for drill sampling and rover instrumentation.