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Rover takes first steps to Mars – leaving Stevenage | Science & Tech News



A space rover that scientists say could discover life on Mars is taking its first step on its journey to the red planet – leaving Stevenage.

The ExoMars rover, named Rosalind Franklin after the British chemist who played a key role in the discovery of DNA, has been put together at an Airbus facility in the Hertfordshire town over the course of the last 14 years.

With assembly finally complete, it departs on Tuesday and will be taken to another Airbus site in Toulouse, France, for extensive testing ahead of a planned launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan in July 2020.

The rover being prepared for its departure from Stevenage
The rover being prepared for its departure from Stevenage

ExoMars is the product of a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the Russian equivalent Roscosmos to explore the surface of Mars and search for signs of life.

The six-wheeled robot is equipped with a two-metre drill to take samples from below the surface, where any biology will have been protected from the harsh radiation environment.

Also on board is an Airbus-developed autonomous navigation system, which will enable it to travel between sites of interest much more quickly than by being driven remotely in real time from Earth.

Liz Seward, senior space strategist at Airbus, told Sky News: “It is all new – this amazing autonomous navigation system, it has got a camera system that will 3D map the surface and allow it to plot its own path.

“The computer is even smaller than having your iPhone – and all of the autonomous movement and science processing has to be done with power it can only get through its solar panels.”

Despite the impressive amount of technology crammed into the rover, it will take its time making its way around the surface of Mars as it can only travel at about two centimetres per second.

NASA's robotic probe InSight has detected and measured what scientists believe to be a marsquake. Pic: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The mission will seek to discover evidence of life on Mars

But Ms Seward is hopeful that the patience that will have to be shown by teams back on Earth will be worth it.

She said: “We know Mars once had an ocean, a water surface, so there is tantalising evidence that it could have had the conditions for life to have formed.

“My head says it is a really tricky thing to do and as amazing as our rover is it will only explore a small area of Mars. My heart says the fact there used to be water is a really strong sign there should and could have been life.”

The vigorous testing of ExoMars will begin in Toulouse and then continue at Thales Alenia Space in Cannes, and its supersonic parachutes will also be put through their paces in the US state of Oregon in November.

If it launches from Baikonur as planned next summer, it is due to land on Mars on 19 March 2021.

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