Rosalind Franklin: The assembly of mars rover by Europe and Russia was completed to send to the Red Planet next year.
Airbus engineers in Stevenage, UK, showed the finished vehicle on Tuesday before it was sent to France for testing.
Called “Rosalind Franklin” by the British DNA pioneer, the six-wheeled robot will seek life on Mars.
It has a drill to dig 2 meters underground to try to detect the presence of microbes, either live or fossilized.
The project is a joint effort of the European and Russian space agencies (Esa and Roscosmos), with contributions from Canadians and the USA.
Although the construction of the rover took only nine months, development work at the component and instrument level has consumed more than a decade (the initial feasibility study began in 2004).
The take-off on a Proton rocket is scheduled for July 2020. It is an eight-month cruise to Mars, landing on an old equatorial plain destined for March 19, 2021, around 0600 local time on Mars.
China and the United States are preparing their own rovers for launch in the same exit window as Rosalind Franklin.
China’s vehicle, called XH-1, is a slightly smaller concept. The Americans are putting together a close copy of the one-ton Curiosity robot that has been investigating the Red Planet for the past seven years. Your machine has the code name currently simply Mars 2020.
What remains to be done?
The approximately 300 kg Rosalind Franklin rover is being packaged and packaged, ready to be sent to an Airbus facility in Toulouse this week. It is in the southwest of France that a series of controls will ensure that the robot can withstand the rigors of travel and interplanetary operation.
Actually, there are three pending elements yet to be integrated into the mobile.
These are the radioisotope heaters that will keep the vehicle warm in the bitter conditions of Mars. But they are a Russian experience and will not be inserted until just before takeoff.
Parallel to the work on the rover, the engineers in Italy of the Thales Alenia Space (TAS) company are preparing the necessary mechanisms to safely carry the rover to Mars.
On Wednesday in Turin, the German cruise spacecraft that will take the robot to the Red Planet, and the Russian descent module, which will protect it when it enters the atmosphere of Mars, will have its first adjustment control.
Eventually, all the elements of the mission will be found in Cannes, in another TAS factory, for mating and balance from end to end.
“When the spacecraft is sent to Mars, it will be spinning. Like the wheels of your car, we have to check the balance to make sure everything turns smoothly,” said Van Odedra, manager of the Airbus rover project.
The entire system should be sent to the Baikonur launch site in April to begin the process of preparing for proton take-off.
Rosalind Franklin was “an excellent scientific tool,” said David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at Esa.
“We still have great challenges ahead, but the success of the mission is our number one priority.”
What is the next critical obstacle?
Currently, there is concern about the availability of the parachute system that will delay Rosalind Franklin’s descent to the surface through the atmosphere of Mars.
Engineers have designed a two-channel system: a smaller supersonic envelope that opens first and a large subsonic membrane that opens once the input speed has become manageable.
Two tests earlier this year, in both types of channels, led to the breakdown in implementation.
Pietro Baglioni, Esa’s ExoMars manager, said the problem seemed to arise from the way the parachutes were packed and then removed, not from the nature of the material used to make them.
That has asked NASA to help find a solution because the US agency saw something similar during the development of the parachute system used in the successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004.
More 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 fictional mass of 30 km altitude; A mortar will fire the supersonic conduit out of its container to simulate a descent from Mars.
Baglioni said the November test had “to show that the corrective measures implemented are at least on the right track. Going to redesign the entire parachute system is out of the question for a 2020 launch.”
A formal “go / don’t go” decision on the mission is expected early next year.
Why is Rosalind Franklin important for the United Kingdom?
Tuesday’s submission to the media was a great moment for the United Kingdom, which has made the Mars robot a central feature of its space science policy over the past decade.
Britain has invested in the order of € 290m (£ 260m) in the wider Esa-Roscosmos program, codenamed ExoMars, which also includes a satellite placed in orbit around the Red Planet. This satellite will act as the relay to send rover data home and, in the other direction, feed Rosalind Franklin with new commands.
Another £ 14 million (€ 16 million) of UK public money was also specifically reserved for instrument contributions both on mobile and on the satellite.
UK scientists lead the PanCam (the panoramic camera system on mobile), for example, which will take the images that help the robot navigate the terrain of Mars and identify the rocks of greatest interest.
With Rosalind Franklin now about to leave the country, there is an intense interest in follow-up.
The study work at Airbus-Stevenage is already considering the design of a rover that would collect samples of cached rocks by Mars 2020 during its mission.
The goal would be to bring these samples back to Earth for a deeper analysis of what is possible on Mars with remote laboratory tools.
The United Kingdom will inform its Esa partners when they meet in Spain in November for an important ministerial meeting that will invest a substantial sum to ensure leadership in the construction of the rover, as is known.