When the European Space Agency (ESA) was looking for a Mars-like environment to test out its latest space gadgetry and challenge a team of expert engineers, it looked toward Chile’s Atacama Desert.
Not only are conditions in the world’s driest desert similar to those of the red planet, but it is also home to high tech astronomical equipment and teams of international scientists.
The ESAs multidisciplinary team was given a deadline to come up with a rover that can navigate alien planets, and in six short months they had designed a fully autonomous vehicle that was finding its own way through Chile’s arid north.
“Their challenge was to demonstrate how a planetary rover – programmed with state-of-the-art software for autonomous navigation and making decisions – could traverse 6 km [3.7 mi.] in a Mars-like environment and come back where it started,” explained ESA’s Gianfranco Visentin.
The idea is to help overcome one of the big challenges facing space rovers; they cannot be piloted by teams from Earth, as a radio signal to Mars would take up to 40 minutes to make it there and back again.
Instead, the buggies think for themselves, that is, they need to be able to carry out tasks autonomously.
And although the ESAs has gone some way to addressing the problem, significant challenges remain.
“ESAs ExoMars rover, due to land on Mars in 2018, will have state-of-the-art autonomy,” added Gianfranco. “However, it will not travel more than 150 m each martian day and not much more than 3 km throughout its mission.
“The difficulty comes with follow-on missions, which will require daily traverses of five to ten times longer. With longer journeys, the rover progressively loses sense of where it is,” the scientist said.
That’s where the ESA hopes its Atacama-based team will come in – pushing the limits of how far the rovers can travel.
And though unusual weather conditions meant that they did not meet the target of the first test, the following months promise new breakthroughs in extraterrestrial navigation technology.
“We managed 5.1 km [3.2 mi.], somewhat short of our 6 km goal, but an excellent result considering the variety of terrain crossed, changes in lighting conditions experienced and most of all this was ESA’s first large-scale rover test – though definitely not our last.” Gianfranco said.