Recently I took part in the Mars Utah Rover Field Investigation (“MURFI”) – a joint UK Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency endeavour that simulated a Mars Rover mission to the martian surface over several weeks. For the UK side of things, mission control was conducted at the Mars Operations Centre at the Satellite Applications Catapult on the STFC Harwell campus. From here, the team directed a rover that had ‘landed’ at an unknown site in Utah, USA, with the objective of characterising the surrounding geology and drill a suitable rocky target within which to search for biosignatures – evidence of ancient microbial life.
Every day at 8am, we received a fresh batch of data from the rover. Once this data arrived, it set forth a flurry of activity among the science and instrument teams, including localisation of the rover (ie, making sure we knew where it was), processing new images and data that we had requested the day before (nearly always with the view to understanding more about the geology we were exploring), and finally putting it all together to figure out what to instruct the rover to do next. It’s exciting stuff, as each morning revealed a new view of the terrain we were exploring – robotic field geology at it’s purest! As well as the science, we also had to ensure we didn’t put the rover in any danger, so no precipitous cliffs, gullies, or big rocks.
The mission control centre itself is also very cool – with huge wall-to-wall screens at our disposal, we were able to discuss the images and data sent back from the rover in detail, and get a great overview of the area using remote sensing data prepared earlier.
Field trials such as these are becoming increasingly important. Unlike NASA, which has send several successful missions to the surface of Mars over the last 4 decades, ESA has much to learn about operating a robotic Mars surface mission, and the UK is keen to grow expertise in this area. As ExoMars2020 becomes an increasing reality, it is vital that we are prepared to run the mission as successfully as possible. Also, these field trials are invaluable for the individual instruments and scientists, to understand not just what each instrument is capable of, but also how best to process the data in a time-pressured situation.