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ESA’s test rover begins exploring Atacama Desert

ESA’s test rover has been fitted with scientific instruments  and made its first tracks in the sands of Chile’s Atacama Desert. Meanwhile, team members have explored the area to select a suitable site for testing, flying a drone to produce an aerial map.

This week’s Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, field trial is gaining experience in remotely operating a Mars rover prototype equipped with scientific instruments.

ESA has assembled an international industrial team for the trial, which takes place in the Mars-like Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth.

“During the past few days we have been busy preparing for the actual trial,” explains Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the testing for ESA. “A number of sites have been visited, based on guidance provided by Chilean geologist Prof. Guillermo Chong.

“Our team geologist Derek Pullan of the University of Leicester has been exploring the area looking for similar sites to the kind of martian locations we would employ the same instruments on. The local team settled on a consensus choice – which we have christened ‘SAFER Valley’.

“Then on Sunday night a digital elevation map, acquired in the field by an overflying drone to simulate orbital imagery of the rover’s surroundings, was sent to the Remote Control Centre at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Harwell, UK.”

The scientific instruments used in the trial are designed to help search for the best location to drill down to collect subsurface samples on Mars. Sheltered from surface radiation and harsh oxidising chemicals, such samples may contain signs of past or present life.

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