'Rosalind Franklin' Mars rover assembly completed
Assembly of the rover Europe and Russia plan to send to the Red Planet next year is complete.
Engineers at Airbus in Stevenage, UK, displayed the finished vehicle on Tuesday ahead of its shipment to France for testing.
Called "Rosalind Franklin" after the British DNA pioneer, the six-wheeled robot will search for life on Mars.
It has a drill to burrow 2m below ground to try to detect the presence of microbes, either living or fossilised.
The project is a joint endeavour of the European and Russian space agencies (Esa and Roscosmos), with input from the Canadians and the US.
Although the rover's build took just nine months, development work at component and instrument level has consumed more than a decade (the initial feasibility study was started in 2004).
Lift-off atop a Proton rocket is scheduled for July 2020. It is an eight-month cruise to Mars, with the landing on an ancient equatorial plain targeted for 19 March, 2021, around 0600 local Mars time.
China and the US are preparing their own rovers for launch in the same departure window as Rosalind Franklin.
China's vehicle, dubbed XH-1, is a slightly smaller concept. The Americans are assembling a near-copy of the one-tonne Curiosity robot that has been investigating the Red Planet for the past seven years. Their machine is codenamed currently simply Mars 2020.
What still needs to be done?
The roughly 300kg Rosalind Franklin rover is being bagged and boxed, ready to be sent to an Airbus facility in Toulouse this week. It's in southwest France that a series of checks will ensure the robot can withstand the rigours of interplanetary travel and operation.
There are actually three outstanding items yet to be integrated on the rover.
These are the radioisotope heaters that will keep the vehicle warm in the bitter conditions on Mars. But they are a Russian expertise and will not be inserted until just prior to blast-off.
In parallel with the work on the rover, engineers in Italy at the Thales Alenia Space (TAS) company are preparing the mechanisms required to get the rover safely to, and on to, Mars.
In Turin on Wednesday, the German cruise spacecraft that will shepherd the robot to the Red Planet, and the Russian descent module, which will protect it as it enters Mars' atmosphere, will have their first fit-check.
Eventually, all elements of the mission will meet in Cannes, at another TAS factory, for end-to-end mating and balancing.
"When the spacecraft is sent to Mars, it will be spinning. Like the wheels on your car, we have to check the balance to make sure everything spins smoothly," explained Van Odedra, Airbus rover project manager.
The entire system should be despatched to the Baikonur launch site in April to begin the process of preparing for the Proton lift-off.
Rosalind Franklin was "superb scientific tool", said David Parker, Esa's director of human and robotic exploration.
"We still have big challenges ahead but mission success is our number one priority."
What's the critical next hurdle?
Currently, there is concern over the readiness of the parachute system that will slow Rosalind Franklin's descent through Mars' atmosphere to the surface.
Engineers have designed a two-chute system: a smaller supersonic envelope that opens first and a big subsonic membrane that opens once the entry speed has become manageable.
Two tests earlier this year - on both chute types - led to tearing on deployment.
Pietro Baglioni, Esa's ExoMars manager, said the problem appeared to stem from the way the parachutes were packed and then extracted - not from the nature of the material used to fabricate them.
Esa has called in Nasa to help with finding a solution because the American agency saw something similar during the development of the parachute system used on the successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004.
Further tests are planned for November and February.
The November demonstration will see engineers travel to Oregon for the launch of a stratospheric balloon.
This will drop a dummy mass from 30km in altitude; a mortar will fire the supersonic chute out of its container to simulate a Mars descent.
Mr Baglioni said the November test had "to show that the implemented corrective measures are at least on the right track. Going for a redesign of the entire parachute system is out of the question for a 2020 launch."
A formal "go/no-go" decision on the mission is expected early next year.
Why is Rosalind Franklin important for the UK?
Tuesday's send-off in front of the media was a big moment for the UK, which has made the Mars robot a central feature of its space science policy this past decade.
Britain has invested in the order of €290m (£260m) in the wider Esa-Roscosmos programme, codenamed ExoMars, that also includes a satellite positioned in orbit around the Red Planet. This satellite will act as the relay to send the rover's data home and, in the other direction, to feed Rosalind Franklin new commands.
A further £14m (€16m) of UK public money was also set aside specifically for instrument contributions on both the rover and the satellite.
UK scientists lead the PanCam (the panoramic camera system on the rover), for example, which will take the pictures that help the robot navigate Mars' terrain and identify the rocks of greatest interest.
With Rosalind Franklin now about to depart the country, there's intense interest in a follow-up.
Study work at Airbus-Stevenage is already considering the design of a rover that would pick up rock samples cached by Mars 2020 during its mission.
The aim would be to bring these samples back to Earth for a deeper analysis than is possible on Mars with remote laboratory tools.
The UK will tell its Esa partners when they gather in Spain in November for a major ministerial meeting that it will invest a substantial sum to secure the lead in building the "fetch rover", as it has become known.
The rover is named after the British scientist who helped decipher the structure of DNA
EXOMARS ROVER READY FOR ENVIRONMENT TESTING
The Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover has completed its construction activities in the UK and will now depart to France for testing under the conditions of the Red Planet’s environment.
The final pieces of the rover’s scientific suite of instruments were attached at the Airbus Defence and Space site in Stevenage over the last weeks. The finishing touches included the ‘eyes’ of the rover: the high-resolution cameras that will provide panoramic and close-up images of the terrain that the rover will explore once on Mars in 2021.
The primary goal of the mission is to determine if there has ever been life on Mars, and to better understand the history of water on the planet. The rover will seek out interesting geological locations to examine with its scientific tools and to drill to retrieve underground samples, on a quest to tackle these questions.
As such, the rover was assembled in a sterile cleanroom under stringent cleanliness rules to avoid that organics, including traces of human life, are accidentally carried to Mars and contaminate the samples.
After 18 months of activities at Stevenage, the rover has now been sealed up and waved off from the UK. Its next stop is Airbus Toulouse, France where it will undergo four months of intense testing to confirm it is compatible with the mission operations and the martian environment.
“Completing the build of the Rosalind Franklin rover under the strict cleanliness requirements, with all the science instruments onboard, is a major milestone of our ExoMars programme. It is thanks to the dedication of all the teams involved that we are able to celebrate this moment today,” says David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration.
“We’re looking forward to completing the final rounds of tests before the rover is declared flight ready and closed inside the landing platform and descent module that will deliver it safely to the surface of Mars.”
Replicating Mars on Earth
The next round of tests will be conducted on vibration benches and in a chamber to simulate the range of environmental conditions expected on Mars. The rover’s instruments must work in an environment that is much harsher than experienced on Earth. For example, Rosalind Franklin can expect temperatures dropping to –120°C outside, and –60°C inside the rover. It must also be able to operate in less than one hundredth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure – and in a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.
In parallel the composite spacecraft comprising the carrier module, descent module, surface science platform and a replica rover will also undergo environmental testing to confirm it is ready to endure the environment of space on its eight-month journey to Mars.
Last year the ‘structural and thermal model’ of the rover successfully completed a rigorous environmental test campaign. Earlier this year, the analytical laboratory that will process and analyse the drilled samples inside the rover also completed a series of tests to verify that the mechanisms and instruments during science operations can produce satisfactory results under these challenging conditions.
The mission is foreseen for launch in just under a year from now (the launch window is 26 July–13 August 2020) on a Russian Proton-M launcher, arriving at Mars in March 2021.
ExoMars rover leaves British factory, heads for testing in France
The European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover left its Airbus factory in Britain on Wednesday, heading for a round of testing in France before integration with its carrier and descent modules on pace for launch toward the Red Planet next July.
The nearly-complete rover is the centerpiece of the ExoMars mission, a joint robotic exploration project between ESA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
The rover is named for Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work contributed to the discovery of the twisting double helix shape of DNA molecule.
“Completing the build of the Rosalind Franklin rover under the strict cleanliness requirements, with all the science instruments onboard, is a major milestone of our ExoMars program,” said David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, in a statement. “It is thanks to the dedication of all the teams involved that we are able to celebrate this moment today.”
“We’re looking forward to completing the final rounds of tests before the rover is declared flight ready and closed inside the landing platform and descent module that will deliver it safely to the surface of Mars,” Parker said.
The Rosalind Franklin rover is Europe’s first Mars rover.
In launch configuration, the solar-powered robot weighs nearly 700 pounds (about 300 kilograms). The European rover is smaller than NASA’s Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars — along with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover set for launch next year — and somewhat larger than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed on the Red Planet in 2004.
Teams at Airbus Defense and Space’s facility in Stevenage, England, north of London, assembled the Rosalind Franklin rover in a special ultra-clean factory over the last 18 months. The construction work capped more than a decade of design — and redesign — activities to prepare the ExoMars rover for its flight to Mars.
Airbus teams built the rover under strict cleanliness requirements, on top of the clean room standards for a typical space mission.
“The goal of ExoMars is to find life on the surface, more specifically under the surface, of Mars, and that means that we absolutely cannot take anything organic with us,” said Paul Meacham, the rover’s lead systems engineer at Airbus. “So that informs things like material choices. The wheels on the rover, for example, are metallic rather than being made of rubber. But that also means that when people are working on it, they must not in any way organically contaminate the rover.”
Over the last few months, engineers installed the rover’s scientific instruments, drill, a 3D panoramic camera suite, solar panels and wheels.
The Rosalind Franklin rover’s scientific payload includes instruments from Europe and Russia, with some component contributions from NASA. The instruments will study the make-up of the rocks and soil around the rover on Mars.
Teams at Airbus also installed the rover’s Analytical Laboratory Drawer, an instrument box which holds equipment to deliver rock and soil samples to three scientific instruments housed inside the container.
The rover’s six metallic wheels and drive system come from MDA in Canada, a division of Maxar Technologies.
The United Kingdom is the second-biggest financial contributor to the ExoMars program among ESA member states, after Italy, so Airbus’s Stevenage factory won the rights to the rover development.
After leaving Airbus’s Stevenage plant, Rosalind Franklin rover’s next stop is at Airbus’s satellite factory in Toulouse, France, where it is due to arrive by truck Friday.
In Toulouse, engineers will place the rover on a vibration bench and in a thermal vacuum test chamber to verify the robot can withstand the rigors of spaceflight and the frigid environment of Mars, where temperatures will drop to minus 184 degrees (minus 120 degrees Celsius) outside, and minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius) inside the rover, according to ESA.
The carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s.
The test campaign in Toulouse should last about four months, assuming everything goes according to plan, then officials will ship the rover to Thales Alenia Space in Cannes to meet the ExoMars mission’s German-built cruise stage and Russian descent module.
Engineers mated the cruise stage and descent module for the first time this week at a Thales Alenia Space facility in Turin, Italy, where the hardware will undergo its own test series over the coming months before shipping to Cannes, where engineers will add the rover.
While the major pieces of the ExoMars mission are coming together in Europe, engineers are struggling to confirm the readiness of the lander’s parachutes, which will slow the spacecraft before touchdown on Mars. The two most recent ExoMars parachute tests — in May and earlier this month — resulted in tears to the chutes.
On the most recent test, conducted over Sweden on Aug. 5, the largest of the four parachutes needed to deliver the ExoMars lander to the surface of Mars suffered damage to its canopy. As a result, the test vehicle used in the parachute test descended under the aerodynamic drag of only the much smaller pilot chute, ESA said.
Read our earlier story on the ExoMars parachute testing.
Two more parachute tests are planned later this year and in early 2020. If both tests produce satisfactory results, ESA officials will give the green light to ship the ExoMars spacecraft to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for final launch preparations.
ESA says the launch window for the ExoMars lander and rover opens July 26, 2020, and runs for less than three weeks. If the mission misses next year’s window, the next launch opportunity is in 2022.
The ExoMars program consists of two parts.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter launched in March 2016 on a Russian Proton rocket and is now surveying the Martian atmosphere with suite of scientific instruments to search for methane, and a camera to map changes on the planet’s surface. The Trace Gas Orbiter launched aboard a Russian Proton rocket in tandem with a landing craft named Schiaparelli, which crashed on the Red Planet on final descent.
Like its orbiter precursor, the second ExoMars mission will launch on a Russian Proton booster from Kazakhstan.
After landing, the Russian descent stage will remain operational as a stationary lander platform — named Kazachok, Russian for “little Cossack” — to conduct its own scientific measurements, while the European rover will drive several kilometers and drill to a depth of 2 meters (6.6 feet) to collect core samples for analysis in the mobile robot’s on-board laboratory.
Scientists have never studied material from so deep below the Martian surface, where biomarkers and organic molecules could survive from life forms that may have inhabited the planet when it was warmer and wetter billions of years ago.
Europe’s Mars lander parachute problems may be worse than thought
ESA has yet to conduct a successful test of the parachutes at supersonic speeds.
In October 2016, Europe's small Schiaparelli lander entered the Martian atmosphere and attempted to touch down on the surface of the red planet. Due to an altitude measurement error, however, the lander's parachute system was released early, and the lander crashed into Mars.
When it comes to Mars, this was just another in a long line of failures. Of the 21 landers sent by humans to Mars over the last six decades, only eight have successfully reached the red planet's surface and conducted science operations—all of which were built and launched by NASA.
Now, the European Space Agency is trying again, with its ExoMars mission due to be launched on a Proton rocket next summer. According to the space agency, the European-built Rosalind Franklin rover and the Russian-led surface platform, Kazachok, are nearly complete. They are due to go down to the Martian surface in a descent module. This spacecraft has a rather complicated sequence of parachute releases to slow the lander's descent through the thin Martian atmosphere.
The first pilot parachute and the 15-meter main parachute are deployed while the lander is still traveling at supersonic speeds. The second set of pilot and main parachutes, which are larger, are deployed at subsonic speeds. This all happens rather quickly, as the entire landing sequence, from entering the Martian atmosphere, to touching down on the planet's surface, takes just six minutes.
Lots of test anomalies
The testing program has not gone particularly well. In May, damage occurred to both main parachute canopies during a high altitude drop test from 29km. After assessing the problem and making changes to the design of the parachutes and their bags, the agency conducted another high-altitude test on August 5th, this time focusing solely on the larger canopy that deploys in the lower atmosphere. This test, too, was not successful.
Despite these failures, European officials have publicly said they are pressing ahead toward a 2020 launch of the mission. “It is disappointing that the precautionary design adaptations introduced following the anomalies of the last test have not helped us to pass the second test successfully, but as always we remain focused and are working to understand and correct the flaw in order to launch next year," said Francois Spoto, ESA’s ExoMars Team Leader, in a news release.
The problems with the parachutes may be worse than has publicly been reported, however. Ars has learned of at least one other parachute failure during testing of the ExoMars lander. Moreover, the agency has yet to conduct even a single successful test of the parachute canopy that is supposed to deploy at supersonic speeds, higher in the Martian atmosphere.
Efforts to obtain a comment from the European Space Agency about this information, or the likelihood of a slip past present 2020 launch date, were unsuccessful. After a spokeswoman with the European Space Agency offered to look into the matter on September, 4, there has been no further response.