ExoMars rover built in Stevenage undergoes rigorous thermal testing ahead of launch

The ExoMars rover, which was built at Airbus in Stevenage, is undergoing thermal testing in Toulouse

The ExoMars rover, which was built at Airbus in Stevenage, is undergoing thermal testing in Toulouse ahead of launch in summer 2020. Picture: Courtesy of Airbus - Credit: Archant

Europe’s first ever Mars rover, which has been built in Stevenage and is set to land on the Red Planet in 2021, is being rigorously tested in France.

The European Space Agency's ExoMars rover, which has been built at Airbus Defence and Space in Gunnels Wood Road, will be the first of its kind to drill up to two metres below the surface of Mars and determine if evidence of life is buried underground.

The rover's mechanical structure, as well as its electrical and thermal components and its interfaces with the scientific instruments, have to be tested to check they can survive their journey in space and operations at the destination.

Tests at the Airbus site in Toulouse, France, include shaking the rover on a vibration table to ensure it can survive the intense juddering as a rocket carries it into space.

It's also subjected to the shocks associated with entering another planet's atmosphere at high speed and as parachutes open, and finally the touchdown onto the surface of Mars.

Thermal testing has just begun. The rover will be heated and cooled to simulate the harsh conditions of its journey through space, and the conditions on the surface of Mars.

Abbie Hutty, a senior spacecraft structures engineer at Airbus in Stevenage, said: "Some of the biggest challenges on Mars relate to the temperature. At night it can get down to -130°C, and even in the summer, at the equator, it won't get much hotter than about five°C. Everything in terms of the materials is very brittle at those low temperatures, so any impacts are much more damaging than they would be at warmer temperatures.

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"On Mars, it can shift 100° from day to night. That means all the different materials are contracting and expanding due to those temperature changes, but at different rates, and that means they are trying to tear themselves apart from the other structure components."

The six-wheeled solar powered rover, named after DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin, features nine instruments which will help scientists conduct a step-by-step exploration of Mars.

It will use panoramic and close-up cameras and will drill for rock samples from various depths, down to a maximum of two metres.

The rocket carrying the rover is due to launch from Russia in July next year and land on Mars in January 2021.