Shake, rattle and roll: stress tests for ESA’s ExoMars rover

A test version of ESA’s ExoMars rover will be subjected to the rigours of a simulated launch and landing on the red planet to make sure the design can stand up to the extreme environments it will face. Image: ESA

The European Space Agency is subjecting its ExoMars rover design to a series of tests extending through the summer to make sure the robotic explorer can withstand the vibrations and shocks of launch, atmospheric entry, parachute deploy and landing on the red planet’s surface. Those structural tests will be followed by two months of exposure to the extreme low temperatures that can be expected at Mars.

Landing on Mars in 2021, the ExoMars rover will be the first lander to drill beneath the surface in search of evidence of habitability or even life that might be present in an environment shielded from harsh solar radiation. The rover’s data will be relayed back to Earth by the Trace Gas Orbiter, which is already in orbit around Mars, looking for gases in the atmosphere that might indicate active geological or biological processes.

To make sure the rover’s design is up to the rigours it will face during launch and landing, a structural and thermal model will be shaken on a vibration table at an Airbus Defence and Space facility in Toulouse, France, to simulate the environment the rover will experience during launch atop a Russian Proton rocket.

The structural test article also will be subjected to the same shocks it will experience decelerating in the martian atmosphere, the sudden jerk of parachute deployment and then touchdown.

The vibration tests, which begin this week, will be followed by two months of thermal testing in a chamber that will be used to create a realistic simulation of the Mars environment with atmospheric pressures of less than 1 percent of Earth’s and temperatures as low as -120 degrees Celsius (-184 Fahrenheit). An internal compartment where soil samples will be analysed will be maintained at higher temperatures.

An artist’s impression of the ExoMars rover on the surface of the red planet with its landing platform visible in the background. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

The test campaign is expected to continue through August when the test article will be moved to Moscow, sealed inside a replica of the spacecraft’s descent module and subjected to another round of vibration, shock and thermal testing.

“This campaign kicks off a series of tests that will verify the mechanical and thermal design of the ExoMars rover,” said Pietro Baglioni, ESA ExoMars rover team leader. The tests serve as “essential preparation that brings us a step closer to roving on the Red Planet.”