The 'roid in Spain drills mainly on the plain: Plucky Brit Mars robot laps up sun, sand and, er, simulated science

Scientists watch from 1,000 miles away as Charlie the Rover plays with ExoMars' toys

A prototype Mars rover, named Charlie, has gone for a trundle around Spain’s Tabernas Desert this week, as scientists gear up for the real thing in 2021.

The UK-built trundlebot was controlled by the ExoFiT team at the UK’s Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire, 1,000 miles away from the sun and sangria of Spain where the remote controlled rover did its thing.

The team practiced driving the rover off its lander before heading to an item of geological interest into which it stuck a drill.

The exercise checked out procedures, software and instruments planned for the European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars rover, which will launch in July 2020. These included the WISDOM ground penetrating radar, the CLUPI close-up imager and the PanCam, a panoramic camera able to provide 3D maps of the area round the robot. The team then used the data to direct the coring drill.

While Charlie itself is not destined for Mars, the lessons learned in remote operations by the team will prove invaluable when ESA's ExoMars rover arrives on the red planet on March 19, 2021.

“One of the primary goals of ExoFiT is the setup of efficient remote science operations," said Ben Dobke, Airbus project manager for ExoFiT.

"It will allow the team of instrument scientists and engineers to practice how to remotely operate and interpret the data from rover mounted instruments. It is setup as a blueprint to develop operational experience for both ExoMars and future robotic Mars missions.”

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The UK is a big fan of the ExoMars mission and is the second largest European contributor, having spanked the best part of €287m on the thing, including £14m on the instruments alone. The Brits are no strangers to missions to Mars, having funded the Beagle 2 mission, which came oh so close to succeeding, to the tune of £25m.

The team plan to continue practicing in order to maximise the chances of mission success, once the ExoMars trundle-bot has begun, er, trundling.

Next year will see the robot heading into the Atacama desert, which scientists reckon is as close as one can get to a Martian environment on Earth. While conditions on the Red Planet are even harsher (more radiation, less atmosphere and even less water), scientists hope that there may be evidence of microbes underground, protected from conditions above.

Astronaut on mars . Photo by shutterstock

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Evidence of liquid water on Mars and conditions that are potentially suitable for underground life are cause for optimism. Handy then that ExoMars will be equipped with a drill capable of penetrating up to two metres beneath the surface.

UK astronaut Tim Peake took another rover, called Bridget, for a spin in 2016. The astronaut, onboard the International Space Station, spent two hours sending the robot rolling around a simulated Martian surface in Stevenage, UK before handing control back to ESA’s Control Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Once on Mars, ExoMars will not be fortunate enough to have an astronaut orbiting above to issue instructions. The rover will have only one or two communications sessions with Earth per day so scientists and engineers require plenty of simulation time in order to make best use of the “several kilometres” the robot is expected to survive for.

While ESA continues preparations for ExoMars, NASA continues to listen for a response from its veteran rover, Opportunity, which was last heard from on 10 June before going into hibernation as a dust storm enveloped it. NASA increased the frequency of communication attempts on 11 September and is expected to issue an update on the long-lived robot in the next few days. ®

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