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Vehicle poised to advance exploration on Mars


Pioneering research carried out by Kingston University is helping to pave the way for a manned mission to Mars. A project team based at the University’s School of Engineering has developed a robotic micro-rover to travel the Martian surface to find out whether humans could live in the Red Planet’s hostile environment.

Named Endurance, the small self-propelled vehicle will be powered by the sun’s rays and equipped to drill beneath the surface to find out if life exists on Mars in the form of microbes. Sponsored by the European Space Agency, the research project is designed to improve the mobility and reliability of technology being used to investigate the planet.

Project leader Dr Alex Ellery said that, even though an actual manned mission to Mars was still many years away, the new vehicle could prove crucial in helping to determine the type of survival equipment needed in the future.

The biggest challenge Dr Ellery and his team have faced was working out how to build a vehicle that could travel across the hostile and rocky environment without tipping over. The planet’s gravity is about one third that on earth, which also makes mobile exploration difficult.

A vehicle on wheels would not provide enough control and stability, so the team has opted to use two single-loop tracks, similar to those on a military tank but with no bogey wheels and no separate links. “The tracks will be made of shape memory alloy. When distorted in any way, it immediately springs back to its original shape. Its other great advantage is that it withstands deformation as it goes over rocks while maintaining stability,” Dr Ellery said. Each alloy track will be looped around drive wheels and shock absorbers at the ends of the Endurance’s chassis. As a result, the drive wheels will be raised above the surface by a few centimetres, keeping the vehicle upright and out of harm’s way.

“The micro-rover is being developed to enable scientists to penetrate beneath the surface in search of life using a drill,” Dr Ellery said. “The surface of Mars is saturated with hydrogen peroxide - a strong and colourless substance that corrodes organic material. If there are signs of life, they will lie beneath this corrosive layer.”

A prototype of Endurance, packed with drilling and sample analysing equipment, is likely to be built this summer by defence company Qinetiq and German research agency DLR. It will weigh only 30kg to allow it to be transported and landed safely on the planet. If all goes according to plan, the Endurance vehicle will be loaded on to a rocket for the six-month journey to Mars either in 2009 or 2011.

John Kendall | alfa
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