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Monday, August 18, 2008

ExoMars Rover Will be the Coolest Martian on Six Wheels

by Ian O'Neill

The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)

The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)

Preparations for the European ExoMars mission appear to be in full swing for a 2013 launch to the Red Planet. This will be a huge mission for ESA as they have yet to control a robot on another planet. Yes, us Europeans had control of the Huygens probe that drifted through the atmosphere of Titan (and had a few minutes to feel what it was like to sit on another planet before Huygens slipped into robot heaven), but it’s been NASA who has made all the strides in robotic roving technology. Although Russia gave the rover thing a blast back in 1971, the roads have been clear for the 1998 Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover and the current NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. Spirit and Opportunity are still exploring the planet (regardless of the limping and stiff robotic arms), several years after their warranty expired. But the Exploration Rovers won’t be the most hi-tech robotic buggies to rove the Martian regolith for much longer.

Enter the ESA Pasteur Rover, possibly the meanest looking rover you will ever see, with the intent of probing Mars to its core…

I’ve been half-following the ESA ExoMars mission for a while now. I say “half-following,” as in I haven’t really been that interested. The mission concept looked pretty good and ticked all the right boxes for a mission to Mars (although I switched off at the line that said, “…will search for evidence that life may exist…” yawn), but it still didn’t grab me, where was the meat? I got bored reading about the ESA concepts, they never seemed to get off the drawing board. I suppose my dreams for European domination on Mars were shattered when the UK’s Beagle 2 made a divot in the planet in 2003. Now that was a sad Christmas for the UK Space Program (we have one? Yes, yes we do!). Of course I was happy for the orbiter Mars Express, but Beagle 2 was going to be awesome. Oh well, I had to move on.

Mars rover Spirit: Old but reliable. Fast becoming the Toyota Celica of the Red Planet? (NASA)

Mars rover Spirit: Old but reliable. Fast becoming the Toyota Celica of the Red Planet? (NASA)

I suppose what it came down to was the sheer volume of spacecraft NASA has churned out in the last decade; Europe really underperformed in my mind (although they didn’t really, just look at the Automatic Transfer Vehicle, Ariane and Venus Express). NASA was doing the cool missions and they really knew how to sell an idea. Look at the Phoenix mission for example. Not only is it assembled from spare parts (from the 1999 Mars Polar Lander), its atmospheric entry, descent and landing was dubbed the “Seven Minutes of Terror.” How can you argue with a Hollywood mission like that?

So since Phoenix touched down in May, we’ve all been waiting for news from the static Mars outpost and now we’ve all forgotten about the Mars Expedition Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. What a fickle Earth-side audience we are.

But there is a new mission on the horizon. As NASA stutters with the Shuttle decommissioning and Constellation underfunding, ESA is beginning to show its mettle. Shiny gold mettle at that. (Yes, mettle is a word.) Remember that ExoMars project I was so down on? Well it’s just gone up in my estimations, I’ve just seen what the rover will look like. And it looks good.

Tough: The Pasteur Rover drills into the rock. None of this "scraping" business... (ESA)

Tough: Pasteur Rover drills into rock. None of this "scraping" business... (ESA)

Looks mean a lot when you’re buying a car, so why shouldn’t looks matter when trundling across the Martian tundra? Recently published images of the Pasteur Rover will surely get the exploring (and conquering) spirit going for any funding body; European member states will have no problem signing up for this mission. It looks sleek (well, as sleek as you can look with solar panels on your head) and tough. It also has bodywork that looks like it’s been modelled from a solid gold bar.

It also packs a punch. Yes, Pasteur has equipment on board to search for traces of amino acids (the precursor to life as we know it) with all that boring biology stuff (sorry, I’m here for the geophysics), but it also has a vast array of instruments monitoring seismic, tectonic and volcanic activity, all the way to the planet’s core. It will also analyse surrounding rocks with contact sensors. It has a ground-penetrating radar. It has a huge array of spectrometers, cameras and detectors. It will also have a high degree of automation, allowing mission control to select a target for Pasteur to roll to and the rover will do the rest (it will plan its own route there). Pasteur will also measure the Red Planet’s magnetic field to see how much radiation that atmosphere does allow through. Plus, and this is the best bit, it will have a drill to bore holes into rock, two metres deep.

To be honest, I’m now in love with the ExoMars mission and I’ll be following the news until (hopeful) launch in 2013. It’s amazing what image does to build interest in space exploration…

For more news on ExoMars, check out the Imperial College London press release