His name is Bruno, he is British, and together with his two siblings he is helping scientists embark on one of humankind’s greatest adventures – the search for life on Mars.
Bruno belongs to a “family” of three rover prototypes – the others are named Bridget and Bryan – which are testing the last word in planetary navigation technology. In two years time a so far nameless six-wheeled machine with a “brain” similar to Bruno’s will be launched to the Red Planet. There it will look for signs of life in soil samples from six feet below the arid Martian surface and take breathtaking colour images of the surrounding landscape.
The British-built rover has star billing in the second half of the 1.2 billion euro (£946 million) joint European and Russian ExoMars mission. As the ExoMars orbiter hurtles towards Mars at 20,500mph (33,000kph) after its launch on March 14, scientists and engineers are gearing up to start work on the rover that will go into space.
Assembling the complex array of mechanical parts and electronic circuits is due to begin at the UK headquarters of Airbus Defence & Space in Stevenage later this year. Testing of the rover prototypes takes place in a giant hangar containing 250 tonnes of sand strewn with artificial boulders, against a backdrop of panoramic photos from Mars.
Speaking at the facility as “Bruno” trundled slowly by – the rover’s top speed is two centimetres per second – head of science Dr Ralph Cordey talked about the machine’s unique ability to steer itself around obstacles.
He said: “One of the challenges of going to Mars is that it’s so far away in terms of the time it takes radio signals to go there and back – around 40 minutes. It’s not possible to drive this sort of machine with a joystick. You’ll crash it. So this rover is designed to be semi-autonomous. It can produce its own 3D map of the area ahead of it, look where it’s being asked to go, and plot its own path. It’s aware that some rocks it can’t get over and has to drive round, and it can see ditches and sense what slopes are safe to climb.”
The rover has one navigational weakness, however – it can get confused by shadows.
“There are caves on Mars and craters that cast long shadows,” said Airbus Defence & Space communications director Jeremy Close. “To explore those areas, it’s more efficient to have a human in the loop.” Cue British astronaut Major Tim Peake, orbiting the Earth as part of the crew of the International Space Station. Next month he will take part in a pioneering experiment that will see him operate Bruno remotely from space. Major Peake will be asked to drive the rover into a “cave” – simulated by plunging half the Mars sandpit into darkness. Steering the machine through a barrier raised across the 30 metres (98ft) by 13 metres (42ft) testing area, he will seek out targets marked with an “X”.
Bruno is a stripped down version of the rover, missing all its scientific hardware, yet is designed to weigh the same as the machine on Mars, around 200kg (441 pounds). That is because the pull of Martian gravity is about a third of the Earth’s.
The finished rover will have a drill that can bore down two metres (6.5 feet) below the Martian surface and extract samples to be analysed in its on-board laboratory.
Unlike any Mars rover before it, the ExoMars rover will look for biochemical signatures of life. They might be organic molecules with a particular left or right “handedness” to their structure that indicates a biological origin, or specific minerals left behind by long-dead microbes.