Mount Etna’s volcanic surface used as lunar robot test track
Robots that are designed to search and explore extra-terrestrial locations such as the Moon and Mars are now being tested on the surface of Mount Etna, the volcano in Sicily, Italy.
Mount Etna is the test bed for the three-feet high, four-wheeled machine ahead of a future mission to the moon. The test is being conducted by the German Aerospace Centre, the agency which runs Germany’s space programme.
The programme has enlisted experts from Germany, Britain, the United States and Italy to research ROBEX (Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments) with the aim of improving robotic equipment that will be used in space.
“This is aimed at simulating a future, hypothetical landing mission on the moon or Mars and they use a lot of robots which are there to transport and install different instruments”, said Boris Behncke, a volcanologist from the National Vulcanology Institute in Catania, near Mount Etna.
Scientists also hope to use the robots to explore the depths of Mount Etna and relay back useful technical data on seismic movement. The techniques learned on Etna would then be deployed in lunar missions or in the exploration of Mars.
An initial robotic testing phase has nearly been completed on the Piano del Lago area of the volcano, a desolate stretch of terrain buffeted by strong winds.
Next, a network of equipment including rover robots and drones will be mounted to monitor seismic activity that closely simulates that which would be used on the moon.
Research into increasingly advanced robotic probes that are designed to be sent into space is accelerating.
Last month, Norwegian researchers started looking at using long, thin robots to carry out inspection and maintenance works on the International Space Station (ISS). If successful, these robots could also find future work on the Moon and on comets.
Meanwhile, last year China’s space agency released the first images of a rover it plans to send to Mars within the next five years.