ExoFiT rover in Chile
Science & Exploration

Fit for Mars

28/02/2019 6454 views 113 likes
ESA / Science & Exploration / Human and Robotic Exploration / Exploration / ExoMars

Rovers are versatile explorers on the surface of other planets, but they do need some training before setting off. A model of Rosalind Franklin rover that will be sent to Mars in 2021 is scouting the Atacama Desert, in Chile, following commands from mission control in the United Kingdom, over 11 000 km away.

The ExoFiT field campaign simulates ExoMars operations in every key aspect. During the trial, the rover drove from its landing platform and targets sites of interest to sample rocks in the Mars-like landscapes of the Chilean desert.

ESA’s human and robotic exploration director, David Parker, explains “we call these tests ‘ExoFit’ - meaning ExoMars-like Field Testing. The results will help us prepare the real Rosalind Franklin rover for the challenge of safe operation far across the Solar System.”

The team behind the exercise, a mix of scientists and engineers, is simulating all the challenges of a real mission on the Red Planet, including communication delays, local weather conditions and tight deadlines.

ExoFiT rover voyage
ExoFiT rover voyage

“We make teleoperations as martian as possible,” explains Juan Delfa, ESA’s robotics engineer overseeing the activities. 

“We are continuously working against the clock as you need to take into account signals from Mars take between 4 and 24 minutes to arrive at Earth while blasts of wind might cover the rover’s solar panels with dust, and that we only have a few hours to decide what the rover should do next,” adds Juan. 

The campaign started on 18 February and will run until 1 March. This is the first time that ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT), in Harwell, UK, is acting as a mission control.

With over 60 people from different space and scientific organisations involved, “it is all about getting the teams to practice with real mission issues. We are learning how to teleoperate a rover in the field and to make decisions in the most efficient way,” says Lester Waugh, ExoFiT mission manager from Airbus.

A rover on the field, scientists in the blind

ExoFiT rover in Chile
ExoFiT rover in Chile

The rover is equipped with a set of cameras and proxy instruments, such as a radar, a spectrometer and a drill, to replicate martian operations.

As it departed from the ‘landing site’ in a remote barren area, the first thing this prototype of ExoMars did was share a panoramic image and its location coordinates with mission control.

Scientists in the UK must take decisions on the next steps with the little information they have – a combination of the data transmitted by the rover and satellite images of the terrain.

“We only see what the rover sends us and we cannot rely on any other real-time information,” explains lead mission scientist Matt Balme, a planetary geologist from The Open University.

ExoFiT rover panorama
ExoFiT rover panorama

On every martian day, known as sol in the planetary jargon, scientists analyse the data they receive and establish a whole plan for the next day in just a few hours. “It is a logistical challenge, and the planning cycle is quite stressful,” says Matt.

ExoFiT composite
ExoFiT composite

The ExoFiT teams in the UK set the exploration path and activities for the rover, which travels at a speed of two centimeters per second avoiding rocks and overcoming slopes.

Drilling into ancient rocks is an important part of the trial. “Just like we would do on Mars, we want to understand the geological history of the area and look for signs of life,” says Matt. 

ExoFiT stands for ExoMars-like Field Testing, and it is an essential step to improving European robotic operations not only for ExoMars, but also for future missions aiming to return soil from the Red Planet, such as the Mars Sample Return mission.

ExoFiT rover looks back
ExoFiT rover looks back

Related Articles

Exomas lander platform
Science & Exploration

Call from Mars winners shortlisted

20/06/2019 2419 views 33 likes
Open item
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
Enabling & Support

ExoMars orbiter prepares for Rosalind Franklin

30/05/2019 4176 views 101 likes
Open item
Up the martian dune
Science & Exploration

Moving on Mars

949 views 13 likes
Open item
Martian moves under control on Earth
Science & Exploration

A European mission control for the martian rover

30/05/2019 4847 views 73 likes
Open item
Science & Exploration

Europe to Mars – and back!

27/05/2019 7654 views 106 likes
Open item
Moving the ExoMars Analytical Laboratory Drawer
Science & Exploration

ExoMars laboratory passes Red Planet simulation

08/05/2019 2232 views 41 likes
Open item
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter analyses the martian atmosphere
Science & Exploration

First results from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

10/04/2019 14957 views 105 likes
Open item
ExoMars carrier module
Science & Exploration

ExoMars carrier module prepares for final pre-launch testin…

05/04/2019 4492 views 94 likes
Open item
Rover landing site candidates
Science & Exploration

Four candidate landing sites for ExoMars 2018

01/10/2014 10007 views 98 likes
Open item
New Norcia antenna supports NASA's InSight lander on Mars
Science & Exploration

Mars calling

26/03/2019 9136 views 102 likes
Open item
Welcome to Europe, Kazachok
Science & Exploration

ExoMars landing platform arrives in Europe with a name

21/03/2019 7687 views 144 likes
Open item
ExoFiT rover in Chile
Science & Exploration

Fit for Mars

28/02/2019 6454 views 113 likes
Open item
ExoMars rover
Science & Exploration

ESA’s Mars rover has a name – Rosalind Franklin

07/02/2019 20343 views 192 likes
Open item
ExoTeR rover
Enabling & Support

ExoMars software passes ESA Mars Yard driving test

17/01/2019 5003 views 89 likes
Open item
Oxia Planum texture map
Science & Exploration

Oxia Planum favoured for ExoMars surface mission

09/11/2018 8993 views 104 likes
Open item
Dust devil tracks on Mars
Science & Exploration

ExoMars highlights radiation risk for Mars astronauts, and …

19/09/2018 8083 views 121 likes
Open item
ExoMars rover
Science & Exploration

Final two ExoMars landing sites chosen

28/03/2017 14403 views 114 likes
Open item
Oxia Planum
Science & Exploration

Landing site recommended for ExoMars 2018

21/10/2015 17770 views 139 likes
Open item

Related Links