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2018 mission: Mars rover prototype unveiled in UK


03-29-2014 07:48 BJT

Britain is not exactly world-renowned for its space industry. But as preparations for the European-led 2018 Mars mission gather momentum, the UK Space Agency has unveiled its Mars rover prototype. It was revealed to the public at a press conference for the opening of the "Mars Yard", a testing ground for rovers.

The opening of the Mars Yard by Airbus Space and Defence is one small, but important, step in the development of the British space industry. In 2018, the European Space Agency will send Europe’s first rover to Mars to search for evidence of life. The Yard has replicated the treacherous Martian terrain to put Bryan, the most recent Mars rover prototype through its paces. Bryan is being designed to navigate its own path to a destination chosen by ground control.

Bryan has 2 cameras at the front which allow him to make a 3D image of the ground up to 9 metres in front of him. The algorithms running on these hard drives then calculate the safest path to his destination avoiding large rocks, steep slopes and holes in the ground. He will then travel 2 metres, before taking more images, and starting the assessment process all over again.

The Exomars mission is the jewel in the crown of the British space industry. The British Government is hoping to corner 10% of the global space market by 2030, but investing billions in space exploration during times of austerity has its critics. The Secretary of State argues that there will be a payoff for more earth-bound sectors.

"The technology you are developing with the robot will have a cross-application in other transport systems, another of our catapults is based on transport systems in Milton Keynes, and they’re developing potentially driverless cars. Some of the technology developed here will have applications right across manufacturing industry and technology," said Vince Cable, UK Sec. of State for Business & Innovation.

Britain’s is one of 20 countries funding much of the 1.2 billion Euro Exomars budget. After the US space agency – NASA -- pulled out of the project last year, its Russian counterpart - Roscosmos - came on board as a full partner. And while NASA continues to provide some help with things like sample analysis, Europe and Russia are developing new technology from scratch.

"For us it’s very important to develop the capability and the technology to be able to do that kind of science activities in Mars by ourselves, and that is the challenge. That is a challenge that we have, as it is very important for exploration and future missions and co-operations at an international level that we can demonstrate we can provide our own technology, our own developments to join missions," said Alvaro Gimenez, Director of Science, European Space Agency.

An initial Mars probe that will be tasked with finding a landing site of the rover will be launched in 2016. When the rover finally blasts off from earth in 2018, Britain and Europe’s hopes of becoming a major international player in space exploration, will be riding with it.

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