Nasa descends on Icelandic lava field to prepare for Mars

WASHINGTON: To prepare for the next mission to Mars in 2020, Nasa has taken to the lava fields of Iceland to get its new robotic space explorer ready for the job. With its black basalt sand, wind-swept dunes and craggy peaks, the Lambahraun lava field at the foot of Iceland’s second biggest glacier, Langjokull, was chosen as a stand-in for the Red Planet’s surface.
For three weeks, 15 scientists and engineers sent by the US space agency descended on the site, 100 km from the capital, Reykjavik, last month to develop a prototype.
It will aim to continue the work of the “Curiosity” rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012 in search of signs of ancient life and making preparations for human exploration.
Experts say that Iceland, a volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, is in many ways reminiscent of the fourth planet from the Sun.
“It’s a very good analogue for Mars exploration and learning how to drive Mars rovers,” said Adam Deslauriers, manager of space and education, at Canada’s Mission Control Space Services. The company has been commissioned by Nasa to test a rover prototype as part of the SAND-E (Semi-Autonomous Navigation for Detrital Environments) project.
The prototype is a small, electric vehicle with white panels and an orange chassis.
It has a four-wheel drive propelled by two motors and is powered by 12 small car batteries stacked inside.
“This rover we have… (is) basically indestructible,” Deslauriers said.
“The rovers that we have on Mars and the Moon would be a lot more sensitive to the environment and conditions of Iceland.
“A Moon rover is completely unprepared for rain,” he added, just as a rain shower swept in. Equipped with sensors, a computer, a dual-lens camera and controlled remotely, the rover moves its approximately 570 kg at a leisurely speed of about 20 centimetres per second. The speed needs to be slow to enable the rover to collect data and imagery properly, Mark Vandermeulen, a robotics engineer at Mission Control
Space Services, said. — AFP