Brussels, 14 Jun 2006
A prototype of the new six-wheeled rover that Europe intends to send to Mars in 2011 has been unveiled.
The ExoMars rover, nicknamed Bridget, is part of the Aurora exploration programme of the European Space Agency (ESA). It represents the first of several planned missions, which should eventually lead to a human mission to Mars between 2025 and 2030.
Exo-Mars' role will be to chart the Martian biological environment before landings by other spacecraft or humans take place. It will cost EUR 600 million to build the vehicle, which is described by ESA as a more sophisticated version of NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers that have been exploring the Red Planet since 2004.
Using solar arrays to generate electricity, the rover will be able to travel a few kilometres over the planet's surface. It will operate autonomously using onboard software, and will navigate using optical sensors. Exo-Mars will also carry a lightweight drilling system, a sampling and handling device, and a set of scientific instruments to search for signs of past or present life. A Mars Orbiter will deliver Bridget to the red planet, using an inflatable braking device to ensure that it lands in one piece.
The project partners from 14 countries are now working on the advanced technology required for the mission. This includes the braking device, as well as the rover system, landing system, power supply and navigation. 'Although this presents a considerable technological challenge for European and Canadian industry, it will bring to fruition many years of technological development both at ESA and national level,' claims ESA.
The Aurora programme includes the Mars Sample Return mission, which will launch a composite vehicle carrying both a descent module and an Earth re-entry vehicle into Mars orbit. The ultimate aim of this mission will be to bring back the first ever sample of Martian soil.
The Aurora programme has two phases:
- 2005-2015: gathering knowledge while developing and demonstrating required technology for human missions to Mars and the Moon, eventually leading to a decision on whether or not to proceed with such a mission;
- 2015-2030: development, verification and implementation of the European elements of the human mission, expected to be an international endeavour.