ESA title
Enabling & Support

Applications for Planetary Exploration

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ESA / Enabling & Support / Space Engineering & Technology / Automation and Robotics

Automation and Robotics is an essential technology for the exploration of the Solar System. ESA has worked on A&R Systems for

  • Mars Exploration
  • Moon Exploration
  • Exploration of other bodies

Robotics for Mars Exploration

The chassis of the EXOMArs Demonstration Rover model-D (EXOMARS-D) showing its cross-country ability
The chassis of the EXOMArs Demonstration Rover model-D (EXOMARS-D) showing its cross-country ability

Mars it is the most Earth-like of the nine planets that make up the solar system. The great distance from Earth (400 million km from the Earth at the farthest point of its orbit) makes travels to Mars long and dangerous. Hence its exploration has been so far carried out only by robotics means. Thanks to its similarities to Earth (i.e. a solid planet with atmosphere), Mars allows the use of the most diverse robotics means:

  • Penetrometers and Robotics Moles for underground exploration
  • Rovers (tracked, wheeled or legged) and hoppers for surface exploration
  • Aerobots (balloons, blimps, planes and hoppers) for aerial exploration

ESA has a long history of developments of missions to Mars. The earliest work was carried out by the Science Directorate with the Kepler study (1982; 1985) followed by the "Mission to Mars" (1989), the "Marsnet" (1993) and the "Intermarsnet " (1996) studies. These works prepared for the very succesful "Mars Express" (2003) mission. The "Exobiology" (1999,2000) study, carried out by the Human Spaceflight Directorate instead prepared for the "ExoMars" (2011) mission. The A&R Section has through these years developed robotics equipment in support to these studies and missions.

Robotics for Lunar Exploration

The Lunar Robotic Mockup (LRM)
The Lunar Robotic Mockup (LRM)

The Moon is the celestial body closest to Earth. Its relative proximity made possible the human missions of the 70s (Apollo11-17). A human return to the Moon is foreseen for the second decade of the century. Despite the predominant human focus, robotics was and still is an important element  of Lunar exploration. The Apollo missions were possible only because of the preparatory robotic Surveyor missions (1966-1969) that allowed to safely investigate the environment of the Lunar surface. The Soviet missions Luna 17-21 (1970-1973) showed that fairly long range exploration was possible with the Lunokhod rovers, teleoperated from ground. The missions Luna 16,20 and 24 (1970,1972,1976) even managed to return Lunar samples to Earth. In fact for the future of Lunar exploration the use of robots can be envisaged for:

  1. exploration in hazardous terrain, such as the exploration of the dark craters in the Lunar poles
  2. preparation of a human outpost, such ground-work, transport, assembly and lay-down of habitation/resource modules
  3. support to human outpost, in the task of maintaining the outpost infrastructure
  4. support to (In-Situ Resource Utilisation ISRU), in mining regolith/ice, transporting it to the ISRU machinery and maintenance of the ISRU machinery

ESA has studied several possible missions to the Moon. Among the recent work is the "Mission to the Moon" (1992) study, the "Lunar Exploration Demonstration Approach (LEDA)” (1994)  the "EUROMOON 2000" (1998)  proposed mission and the "Lunar Exploration Study" (2004) internal study.
All these studies and missions envisaged use of robotics elements, whose development has been undertaken by the A&R section

Robotics for the Exploration of other bodies

The Nanokhod micro-rover initially developed for the INTERMARSNET mission, later adapted for the BepiColombo mission.
The Nanokhod micro-rover initially developed for the INTERMARSNET mission, later adapted for the BepiColombo mission.

Robots have been considered by ESA also for the exploration of other planets/moons/asteroids/comets.:

  • Mercury: the ESA BepiColombo mission (launch in 2013) will study Mercury from orbit. However in the early concept of the mission there was a lander which had a sophisticated robotic payload including the Nanokhod microrover. The A&R Section participated in the definition of this payload and initiated a series of R&D activities to reduce the criticality of certain elements (i.e. therover, the imaging system the rover-mounted instrument suite).
  • Venus: the ESA Venus Express (launch in 2005) is currently orbiting the planet. A follow-on mission called Venus Entry Probe (VEP) has been studied by the Science directorate. VEP will deploy a balloon in the upper atmospere of Venus.  The balloon will in turn release few robotic micro-probes, which will provide information on the lower layers of the atmosphere. The A&R Section has been developing with industry an integrated localisation and data transmission system for the microprobes.
  • Titan: The ESA/NASA Cassini/Huygens mission succesfully delivered in january 2005 the Huygens probe  on the surface of Titan. The success of the mission has put forward the case for a follow-on mission which could use Aerobots for surveying a larger part of the moon.
  • Comets: The ESA Rosetta mission (launch in 2004) is currently on its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta will deliver the Philae lander to the Comet's surface. The lander contains several A&R technologies among which an automated drilling and sample distribution system
  • Asteroids:  ESA has not yet been involved into asteroid missions. However the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has succesfully flown its MUSES-C mission to the Itokawa asteroid. The MUSES-C mission featured a MIcro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid (MINERVA). The robot, equipped with hopping locomotion and 3 cameras, was supposed to investigate the surface of ITOKAWA with 1 mm spatial resolution. Regrettably the MINERVA failed to land on the asteroid.

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