A lonely rover trundles its way across the barren surface of the planet. It stops next to an interesting looking rock to drill deep into the ground to see if there are signs of life.
But this isn’t an alien world, it’s a desert in southern Spain. And while the rover looks almost exactly like one that will fly to Mars in 2020, it’s an engineering model, taking part in the most rigorous test-run yet of the upcoming mission.
"As much as possible, you want to do all the testing on earth, so that you're sure everything you send is actually up for the job," explains Elie Allouis, an engineer with Airbus, which is running the trial.
The company is building the body of the European Space Agency’s Exomars rover at its Stevenage base. It will be the most sophisticated robot they’ve ever sent to Mars.
But the trial isn’t really about testing the rover itself, it’s about understanding how its suite of 9 instruments perform, and the teams of scientists who work on them cooperate with each other.
That’s why nearly 1500 miles away from the make-believe Mars in the Tabernas desert in Spain, a team of scientists and engineers are sitting in a room in Oxfordshire controlling it.
They’re receiving data from the rover, just as they would from Mars, and having to programme its daily movements in sparse lines of code, just like the messages they will have to send 35 million miles to Mars.
Planning for ESA’s Exomars mission first began back in 2001. For many of the research teams this is the first time they have all come together to work on the mission for real.
The instruments on Exomars, including its drill capable of probing up to two metres below the surface of Mars has perhaps the best chance of any mission that has yet gone to the planet to find signs of past life.
For Mars geologist Dr Suzanne Petra Schwenzer of the Open University who chose the site in Spain for the trial, the discovery of life is what motivates her: "This would be one of the most spectacular findings. I would just get jumping and excited about it."