Summary:

Before space agencies send a rover to a distant planet, they have to test it on Earth. With little moisture and no vegetation, the rock-covered Atacama Desert does a great job of mimicking Mars.

NASA rover
photo: ESA

You test a drill bound for Mars in Greenland. For a robotic rover headed to Mars, the European Space Agency turned to an even more remote location: the Atacama desert in Chile.

The ESA ExoMars rover is scheduled to land in 2019 on Mars, where it will search for signs of life. IEEE Spectrum caught that the ESA began testing the rover this week in the Atacama Desert. The location is very dry with reddish soil and zero vegetation, which makes it an excellent on-Earth mimic of Mars’ surface and an excellent place to test a Mars rover.

Atacama Desert

ExoMars will be expected to perform more autonomous tasks and move faster than NASA’s Curiosity rover. As a result, that’s a big focus of the testing going on in the Atacama desert. ESA will have limited contact with the rover once it lands on Mars, which it will replicate during the testing.

“This field trial is about optimizing the use of typical instruments and equipment aboard a Mars rover and generating a set of commands for the rover to execute the following day,” project lead Michel van Winnendael said in an ESA release last week“This implies limited data return from the rover during relatively short communication windows, with an inherent time delay.”

NASA dropped out of the ExoMars mission last year due to budget concerns, but the ESA rover will include a NASA-built soil analysis instrument. ESA hopes that it will eventually be able to return soil samples collected by ExoMars to Earth.

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