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Airbus Defence and Space opens state-of-the-art Mars Yard

The new state-of-the-art extended Mars Yard in Stevenage will be the test area for Europe's Exomars rover

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Vince Cable and David Parker view the new Airbus Mars Yard.
Vince Cable and David Parker view the new Airbus Mars Yard. Credit: Max Alexander/ UK Space Agency

Airbus Defence and Space opened a new state-of-the-art extended Mars Yard test area at its Stevenage site today. The facility was opened by Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable; Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, Dr David Parker; and Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency, Alvaro Giménez.

  • Test area 30m by 13m will facilitate final development of autonomous navigation system
  • Simulated Mars environment mimics conditions on the Red Planet with 300 tonnes of sand

Europe’s first Mars rover will have an unmatched capability to autonomously navigate up to 70 metres a day with no outside guidance from ground control. The rover is being developed as part of the ExoMars mission - a European mission, part funded by the UK Space Agency, to put a rover on Mars in 2019. Its aim is to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that may have once, and perhaps could still, support life.

The new extended Mars Yard will provide a realistic and representative Martian environment to allow the Guidance, Navigation and Control team of the ExoMars rover project to finalise the sophisticated autonomous navigation system.

Vince Cable said: “The ExoMars rover represents the best of British high-value manufacturing. The technologies developed as part of the programme, such as autonomous navigation systems, new welding materials and techniques, will also have real impacts on other sectors, helping them stay on the cutting edge.

“Not only is it hugely exciting that Europe’s next mission to Mars will be British built, but it is incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of our investment in the European Space Agency creating jobs here in the UK.”

Alvaro Giménez said: “A facility like this enables us to develop sophisticated navigation systems to ‘teach’ Mars rovers how to drive autonomously across the Red Planet. This will be a fantastic resource for the ExoMars rover team and for future missions to come.”

Colin Paynter, Head of Airbus Defence and Space in UK added: “ExoMars is a hugely fascinating programme and the new yard brings us one step closer to launch.” The new enlarged facility is 30 metres by 13 metres, contains 300 tonnes of specially selected sand and includes design features to ensure that the environment is the closest match possible to Mars.

The walls, doors, and all interior surfaces are painted a reddish-brown colour mimicking the background colour on Mars, and the yard also includes a large mural of the Martian landscape. These features ensure the rover navigation cameras see as realistic a Martian landscape as possible.

The Mars Yard will be used up until launch and will also be kept available after the rover has landed on the surface of Mars in 2019 – if necessary to address any problem by simulating the situation on Earth. Manufacture of the flight rover will begin early in 2015 after construction of an advanced clean room for interplanetary missions at Airbus DS’s Stevenage site. Mission launch is planned for 2018.

Published 27 March 2014