Aerospace firm Airbus has opened a giant sand pit in the UK designed to mimic the surface of Mars to test a new rover.
The 30m by 13m Mars Yard test area is filled with 300 tonnes of sand to provide a "realistic and representative Martian environment" to trial the ExoMars robot, due to be launched to the Red Planet in 2018.
The walls, doors and all interior surfaces of the test area are painted a reddish-brown colour to ensure the rover's navigation cameras are confronted by as realistic a scenario as possible and it features a number of rocky obstacles.
The European Space Agency’s (Esa) director of Science and Robotic Exploration Alvaro Giménez said: “A facility like this enables us to develop sophisticated navigation systems to 'teach' Mars rovers how to drive autonomously across the Red Planet. This will be a fantastic resource for the ExoMars rover team and for future missions to come."
ExoMars is a joint project between Esa and Russia's Roscosmos space agency and will consist of two missions – an orbiter and landing demonstrator that will be launched in 2016, followed by the rover and surface science module that will be launched in 2018.
The missions will address whether life has ever existed on the planet, by investigating the atmosphere and drilling into the surface to collect and analyse samples. It is also designed to demonstrate key technologies for entry, descent, landing, drilling and roving.
The Mars Yard will be used by the ExoMars team up until launch and will also be kept available after the rover has landed on the surface of Mars in 2019 – if necessary to address any problem by simulating the situation on Earth.
Manufacture of the flight rover will begin early in 2015 after construction of an advanced clean room for interplanetary missions at Airbus Defence and Space's Stevenage site.
Business secretary Vince Cable, who was present at the opening, said: "The ExoMars rover represents the best of British high-value manufacturing. The technologies developed as part of the programme, such as autonomous navigation systems, new welding materials and techniques, will also have real impacts on other sectors, helping them stay on the cutting edge.
"Not only is it hugely exciting that Europe's next mission to Mars will be British built, but it is incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of our investment in the European Space Agency creating jobs here in the UK."
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