Mars Yard Testing Ground for Rovers

Mars Yard

A new testing area has been built in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, U.K. The area, dubbed the Mars Yard, will be a testing ground for rovers slated to travel to Mars for research. The newly built facility is larger than any simulated testing grounds previously built. The 300 tons of sand have been specially selected to simulate a Martian environment and has been added to the 98 ft. by 43 ft. testing grounds. All the interior surfaces are painted in a reddish-brown shade to simulate the predominate color found on Mars. There has even been a large mural of the landscape mounted on the facility walls.

The coloration, the special sand, and even the backdrop mural are all included to create the closest possible experience to Mars that engineers can build. These details will be useful for testing any rovers which may be sent to the planet. The newest rover, ExoMars, is scheduled to launch in the year 2018. The rover will navigate using cameras and computer systems as opposed to detailed instructions from scientists located on Earth. To ensure the cameras are optimized for Mars conditions, all important details have been taken into account.

Engineers have even taken into account the lighting situation. Because the new rover will be navigating by camera, the Mars Yard testing ground designers have incorporated simulated Mars lighting for the facility. The state-of-the-art lighting system will include approximately 60 different lights in order to approximate the spectrum of light on Mars. The lighting intensity has been adjusted and different lighting scenarios have been taken into account. The testing grounds will even be able to create shadows like the rover may encounter on the other planet. These details will ensure that the cameras necessary for the rover’s navigation will work properly under the alien conditions.

The sand used in the facility was specially selected to closely approximate the type of sand that the rover will need to navigate after its landing. The material is comprised of a fairly coarse sand which includes pebbles. The material will be close to something one may expect to find at the beach. The sand in the facility, however, is very, very dry. Because something similar is used in the making of tennis courts, the material used at the Mars Yard is comprised largely of material that would come from a construction company.

While the sand on Mars can be approximated, the gravity cannot. The gravity on Mars is 62 percent lower than Earth gravity. As there are no current methods for changing the gravity of an area like the Mars Yard, the testing for the rovers had to compensate for this gravitational difference in another manner. The work-around at this time is to simply build the testing prototypes at a different weight level. These rover prototypes on Earth will approximate the gravity to rover mass levels which will occur once the actual rover lands on Mars.

The area was recently opened not only by the European Space Agency’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, Alvaro Giménez, but also by Dr. David Parker, Chief Executive of the U.K. Space Agency as well as Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business. The Mars Yard rover testing ground will be used initially to test the ExoMars rover which is scheduled to launch 2018 and it will remain available for engineers after the expected 2019 Mars landing. If problems with the Mars rover are encountered, the testing facility may help address and correct any issues. The testing at the facility will be done with prototypes and production of the actual rover is scheduled to begin early in 2015.

By Dee Mueller
on twitter @TuesdayDG

BBC News
Controlled Environments

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