MILTON KEYNES, U.K. — The European aerospace giant Airbus has been testing its Mars Sample Fetch rover over the past few weeks in simulated Martian terrain in a quarry near London, hoping the technology, which is no longer ticketed for Mars, will get a second chance on a future moon mission.
The rover was originally expected to collect samples cached by NASA's Perseverance Mars rover for a return to Earth in the early 2030s. But NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), which are conducting the Mars sample-return campaign jointly, abandoned the fetch rover concept in July this year in favor of a pair of small NASA helicopters.
The cancellation was a second Mars rover-related setback for Airbus and the entire European space industry this year after the launch of the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover, which was scheduled to take place in September, was called off because of Russia's involvement with the project.
The fetch rover, which can drive up to twice as fast as Perseverance, according to Airbus officials, features a unique wheel design inspired by the Apollo-era moon rovers. The wheels are encased in protective tires made of metallic mesh that conforms to the surface and allows the rover to climb over obstacles more efficiently.
During the recent tests in the quarry near Milton Keynes, a town about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of London, Airbus engineers put through its paces the autonomous navigation system that enables the rover to independently plan its route and safely avoid obstacles.
"We've been extremely happy with how it's been performing in this fake Mars [environment]," Warren Hamilton, a guidance, navigation and control systems architect on the Sample Fetch Rover project at Airbus, told Space.com. "We've made it as Mars-like as possible, scattering rocks throughout and making sure that the environment is full of interesting obstacles."
The biggest challenge in making the technology work, Hamilton said, is the need to use hardened space-qualified computers, which lag behind the current state of the art. Instead of driving around like an autonomous car, the rover stops to evaluate the terrain every couple of meters before executing the next part of its journey.
"The space-rated computers are very slow, sort of 1990s technology," Hamilton said.
Hamilton admitted that the team was taken aback by the decision to replace the fetch rover with two helicopters but hopes the technology will get another chance in one of the upcoming moon exploration missions as part of NASA's Artemis program.
"The technology that we've developed and are still developing for the navigation system for obstacle avoidance and autonomous traverse is applicable to any environment really," Hamilton said. "We've taken it into a quarry, and it's worked perfectly here."
Hamilton's colleague Ben Dobke, an integrated breadboard manager on the Mars Fetch Rover project at Airbus, said that while the navigation system could switch to the moon without too many difficulties, the rover design itself would require a significant technical overhaul.
"The temperature extremes are more extreme on the moon," Dobke told Space.com. "Mars has a typical day like Earth, about 24 hours, but the moon has 14 days of shadow. Building a system that can operate on the moon can therefore be challenging. That's something we are going to look into in future studies."
In the meantime, ESA, which funded the development of the Mars Sample Fetch rover, is working to map out the future of the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover. The ExoMars rover, built to search for traces of life underneath the Red Planet's surface using a 6.6-foot-long (2 meters) drill, was supposed to launch from the Russia-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last month. The launch was scrapped after ESA first suspended and then stopped cooperation with Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
ESA hopes to get the ExoMars rover to Mars toward the end of this decade with the help of NASA. A final decision on the project will be made later this year. To continue with ExoMars will require a significant investment from the European Space Agency and its member states on top of the 1.3 billion euros already spent on the program. In addition to providing the launch vehicle, Russia funded and built the rover's landing platform, which will have to be remade from scratch.