Artists's concept of NASA Mars Exploration Rover on Mars (image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University)

Synthetic soil produced to mimic conditions on Mars

Researchers have developed a synthetic soil that mimics the properties of the terrain found on Mars.

Experts at the UK’s Cranfield University were approached by Astrium and the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2010 and tasked with producing a material with properties similar to that of soil samples recovered from the red planet during NASA’s mission in 2003.

The team tested a number of possible materials before deciding on a replica soil made from a pure silica flour base. The resulting material will be used to test the performance of robotic rovers planned to explore the surface of Mars as part of the ESA’s ExoMars programme scheduled for launch in 2018.

Dr Terence Richards, Research Fellow in Off-Road Dynamics at Cranfield, said: “Cranfield University’s Off Road Dynamics team was selected because of its expertise in terramechanics associated with vehicles, both large and small, and their interactions with the environment.  The biggest challenge was posed by the soil’s particle size distribution and the presence of cohesion with virtually no moisture. Using this soil surrogate locomotion sub-system developers will be able to test mars rover capability on challenging terrain prior to launch.”

Based on the experience developed over the course of the soil project, Cranfield was also awarded a further contract by Astrium to test a number of potential wheel designs as part of the ESA Sample Fetching Rover study. Using the replica soil, rover wheels of varying stiffness were tested and with data produced to further improve the understanding of Martian terramechanics.

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