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European Space Agency to Begin Testing Mars Rover in Chilean Desert Next Week

It seems like most of the Mars-related headlines go to NASA, but the European Space Agency has a strong interest and investment in the Red Planet as well. Next week, ESA’s most ambitious planetary rover test to date will kick off with the robotic exploration of a Mars-like desert in South America, which will provide experience for future missions to Mars.

The rover will explore the desolate Atacama Desert located in northern Chile, which is considered to be one of the closest terrestrial matches for Mars’ environment. This location is among the driest locations on Earth, lacking any vegetation, and its red-brown soil and rocks give it even more of a Mars-like feel.

The goal of the testing is to build up experience in operating rovers on a planet, which requires a different way of working from a satellite mission. The trial is also intended to develop technologies and expertise for future Mars missions, but for an added sense of realism, it is using ESA’s 2018 ExoMars rover as its “reference mission.”

Each day of the five-day test will be treated as the equivalent of two Mars days, or “sols”. For each sol, the scientists will downlink data then prepare a set of commands for the next sol that the rover will carry out on its own.

The rover’s remote overseers will be based at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Hartwell, U.K., which is located next to ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications.

In the Atacama Desert of Chile, an early prototype of the six-wheeled ExoMars rover will be fitted with prototypes of its three scientific instruments, which include a panoramic camera for stereo 3D imaging, a ground-penetrating radar to prove subsurface geology, and a close-up imager for studying subsurface samples to a resolution of a thousandth of a millimeter. The instruments will work together to select a sample site that includes outcrops of bedrock beside looser material. A human-operated hand drill will collect underground samples for the rover to examine, but the human intervention will be invisible to the remote operators.

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