Building a Mars rover
Abbie Hutty, an engineer on the ExoMars project, explains what it's like to work on a lander that will drive on the red planet
My name is Abbie Hutty, and I was the lead structure engineer for the rover, actually designing the body of the ExoMars rover that's going to land on Mars in 2020.
I was first inspired to become an engineer when I saw Colin Pillinger on the news talking about the Beagle 2 mission, which was a British engineering mission to Mars. And now I'm in the very same position with this mission.
I think, for me, it's just inspirational to think that something that I've had a hand in designing is one day going to be leaving tracks on a planet where no human foot has ever trod. And looking up at the night sky and seeing the Earth as a tiny point of light - that's just incredible to me. If it does find evidence of life on another planet, then that would just be amazing.
The moments of launch and landing are always key and very concerning parts of the mission. So I'm probably going to be hiding behind my sofa watching the telly with-- biting my fingernails at that time.
This facility is called the Mars Yard. And we use it to demonstrate our autonomous navigation. So our rover will be intelligent enough to drive itself around on the surface of Mars. But we need to demonstrate that and make sure that it's making all of the right decisions and it's going to drive safely. So we have this facility full of rocks and sand, with the right colour of light for the Martian day, and all of those kind of things accurately represented so that we can make sure that that will all work to plan.
The backdrop you can see along the wall here is a real panoramic photo taken by Curiosity, one of the Nasa Mars rovers. We have a lot of data about what Mars really looks like, how bright the sunshine is there, which means how deep the contrast between the shadows on the rocks and things like that will be. And all of those things are important when we're making sure that our software is intelligent enough to accurately plan a path through those obstacles on Mars.
Some of the things that we have to make sure we can tolerate on Mars with our rover is the large rocks, how big we can climb over, how big it has to be before it's too dangerous, really, to drive around, so all of those kind of things. So we've studied what Mars is like in all of the areas that we're likely to land or likely to encounter. And we can mimic the best and the worst of those scenarios in here. We can reconfigure the sand to give a steep slopes or large piles of rocks. And we can make sure that our rover makes the right decisions in all of those situations.
We're just about to send our STM out to test, so our Structural and Thermal Model. And that is the final time, really, that all of our design is verified. We do a lot of testing mechanically, so for the vibrations during rocket launch, the vibrations, again, during the descent onto the planet's surface, and how it will actually drive around as well.
And then we also have to do like a bakeout, effectively. So we get very, very hot to sterilise the rover before it launches. So we have to make sure that everything will survive that. But deep space is very cold. And Mars is very cold, and it fluctuates very wildly. So we have to test all of those different temperatures and that actual cycling from hot to cold to hot to cold and whether that will damage the rover.
Space is also very cold. So we have a very long time when most of our equipment is off, when you are in a standby mode, effectively travelling across to Mars. And we have to make sure that we can enjoy that really deep cold that you experience then.
The vibrations of the rocket launch, what we're putting into our rover is 10 times the acceleration of the worst ever recorded earthquake. So it's really quite an intense shaking that that rover goes through as it's on that rocket. The model that we've got in the clean room at the moment ships out to Toulouse next week. And then we start first our mechanical testing, and then the thermal test programme after that.
Hopefully, we'll be finished by the middle of August. And then all of those requirements will be closed out. And we'll have demonstrated that our design is fit for purpose. And we can proceed with the flight build of the rover.
We're actually due to ship it out to Russia, where it will launch from next year. And then they integrate it onto the rocket, the descent module. And the other thing is that we need to get it safely to the planet's surface. It's due to launch from Russia in 2020. It takes a little while to get across to Mars. So it will be landing early 2021.
I absolutely think the first person on Mars has to be a woman, because we've had men on the Moon. We've never had a woman on the Moon. So it's absolutely our turn to put a woman on Mars. But I just want to be very clear that I'm not volunteering for that.