Rover destined for Moon or Mars tested in UK quarry

The Sample Fetch Rover was designed to collect sample tubes left on Mars by Perseverance

The Sample Fetch Rover, known as Anon, is put through its paces at a quarry in Milton Keynes, England, on September 29. PA
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A planetary rover has been put through its paces at a quarry in Milton Keynes, England, before it could be destined for missions on the Moon or Mars.

Known as Anon, the Sample Fetch Rover was intended to collect sample tubes left on the surface of Mars by Perseverance.

But this year Nasa and the European Space Agency announced that the rover would no longer be needed for this work because Perseverance — which landed on the Red Planet in February 2021 – is already collecting samples there.

But Airbus engineers who have been working on the SFR since 2018 are still putting the machine through its paces.

Quarry testing is essential to the development process, providing a unique and dynamic landscape that cannot be replicated within the Mars Yard test facility at Stevenage.

It is the first time all of the rover’s systems are being tested simultaneously.

Airbus is looking to ensure this surface mobility capability, that could also be used on the Moon, is maintained for the UK space sector.

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“Even though the mission may have faded away, the core technology is still ready and able to go and this is the kind of the final step in proving that it works," said Ben Dobke, project manager at Airbus.

“With the Artemis programme happening at the end of the decade, the focus has started shifting towards the Moon.

“So any rovers or autonomous vehicles on the moon, this software can certainly be applied to that in the future.”

For the rover to be used on future Moon missions, engineers will have to reconsider temperatures on the lunar surface and how to keep key components functioning in the lack of atmosphere.

They will also have to look into how the SFR is powered up after spending 14 nights essentially in sleep mode because of the cold temperatures when it is in darkness.

The SFR prototype has four wheels, unlike the six-wheeled ExoMars rover, and is designed to operate six times faster than ExoMars.

This involves greatly enhanced autonomous navigation, the engineers say.

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But apart from possibly being used for future Moon missions, experts suggest the SFR’s technology could be useful for different purposes including building habitats on the Moon.

“There’s various avenues of investigation so it could be scientific, going into places where there’s lunar ice," Mr Dobke said.

“It could be in support of human habitats, whether it be autonomously building habitats or whether it’s supporting driving astronauts around on the surface.

“So there’s a number of different applications that we could have autonomy on the Moon.”

But a possible focus on Moon missions does not mean all hope is lost for the SFR visiting Mars.

“All the technology that’s been developed for Sample Fetch Rover is still really, really useful because we’ve developed a huge amount of expertise and know-how in the UK," said Dr Adam Camilletti, systems lead at the UK Space Agency.

“And we think that can be utilised in commercial applications, for autonomous vehicles and inspecting infrastructure and down tunnels and in difficult terrains.

"But also we think it can be utilised in future missions, perhaps to the Moon and future missions to Mars as well.”

Updated: October 04, 2022, 12:23 AM