Last week, the small ExoTeR rover left the sandbox of the Planetary Robotics Laboratory in ESTEC, Noordwijk, the Netherlands, to gently land on the Mars Terrain Simulator (MTS), in the ROCC facilities, at ALTEC premises, in Turin, Italy.

ExoTeR, is a half-scale model of the ExoMars 2020 rover sharing with its larger brother a similar locomotion and navigation system, as well as the suite of sensors available on-board.  Two stereo-cameras emulate the ExoMars rover’s engineering cameras to be used for on-board navigation and relative localization (NavCam and LocCam), while a third, stereo-camera replaces PanCam, the camera system utilized for scientific investigations, one of nine instruments hosted on the ExoMars robotic platform.

ExoTeR has landed on the MTS with a mock-up of the ExoMars landing platform.  The lander will accommodate the rover during interplanetary cruise, entry and descent through the thin martian atmosphere and at landing.  In addition to the images taken by the rover itself, four cameras placed at the corners of the landing platform will provide images of the surrounding landscape, to be used by ROCC operators to formulate the best strategy to descend—using one of two possible sets of ramps—onto the martian surface.  The ExoMars rover will the start its exploration mission, looking for traces (the so-called “biosignatures”) of past and present life on the red planet.

Two days have been organized at ALTEC by ESA’s Automation & Robotics development laboratory engineers to train ALTEC personnel, currently involved in the design of the ROCC operations, to use the ExoTeR rover for simulating several mission phases. Colleagues from the Belgian company TRASYS  have provided support for utilizing the software so-called 3DROCS, acting as rover monitoring and control station.

ExoTeR will be used in the next months to simulate some of the operational processes to be used at the ROCC during the ExoMars mission. Such type of testing activity will be also useful to make mission operators aware of the challenges they will encounter after the ExoMars rover has landed on Mars. They will have to rely only on the images and the other scientific products obtained by the rover to plan the best path to be travelled in the upcoming sols, avoiding dangerous and potentially harmful obstacles.

Difficult egress situations from the landing platform can also be rehearsed (e.g. high inclinations, rocks blocking the rover egress path, steps at the end of the ramps).  Such use-cases will be essential to evaluate the operators’ readiness and boost confidence to support the mission.

The ExoMars 2020 mission is developed in the context of an international cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), for the exploration of the solar system.

Italy, through the Italian Space Agency, is the main supporter of the ExoMars dual mission.
ESA assigned to the Italian industry, and in particular to Thales Alenia Space Italy (Thales 67%, Leonardo 33%), the main leadership of both missions, in addition to the overall system responsibility of all the elements.

References:

Planetary Robotics Laboratory
https://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technology/Planetary_Robotics_Laboratory

ExoMars 2020 Mission
http://exploration.esa.int/mars/48088-mission-overview/