Life on Mars? Stevenage-built Rover takes step closer to finding the answer

Stevenage-built Rover undergoing final tests Credit: ITV News Anglia

A Mars rover built in Stevenage has taken a step closer towards its mission to search for life on the red planet after its upgraded parachute and bag system passed a series of tests.

The checks on the equipment were conducted by NASA in California to determine whether it is fit for use in the harsh conditions of the Red Planet. Formerly known as ExoMars, the Rosalind Franklin rover is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

The latest round of tests focused on one of the two parachutes on the rover, which had components provided by parachute manufacturing companies Arescosmo and Airborne Systems.

Arescosmo provided a new bag design and a revised approach to folding to avoid line-twisting during parachute extraction while Airborne Systems supplied the parachute and bag system, according to the ESA.

The mission to Mars was delayed but is

Thierry Blancquaert, who is the team leader of the ESA's ExoMars programme, said: "Both performed very well in the tests."

The Rosalind Franklin rover was built by Airbus Defence and Space at the company's UK facility in Stevenage and is named after Rosalind Franklin, a UK scientist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

The rover plays a key role in the ESA and Roscosmos's two-part mission, the first of which - called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) - was launched in 2016.

The aim of the TGO was to "sniff out" gases in the Martian atmosphere and look for evidence of methane - an indication of life on or below the planet's surface.

Earlier this year, scientists from the UK's Open University In Milton Keynes revealed that the TGO had found traces of water vapour, one of the key ingredients of life.

Destination Mars Credit: NASA/ESA

The second part of the ESA and Roscosmos's Mars mission is scheduled to launch next year, when the Rosalind Franklin rover takes off. The 300kg-robotic vehicle was due to blast off in 2020 but engineers were not able to get the spacecraft ready on time. Matters were further complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In November 2020, the rover successfully completed its first full-scale high-altitude drop test, following two failed tests in the previous year.

As part of the next steps, it will perform another high-altitude drop test in early June from Kiruna, Sweden, which will see the rover dropped under the parachute from a balloon, at an altitude of about 29km.

Further ground-based tests are due in August to prepare for another pair of high-altitude drop tests later this year.

The Rosalind Franklin rover requires two main parachutes to help slow it down as it plunges through the Martian atmosphere. When the spacecraft is 1km above ground, the braking engines will kick into gear and safely deliver it to the planet's surface.

Chris Castelli, director of programmes at the UK Space Agency, said: "The Rosalind Franklin rover demonstrates the UK's leading capabilities in robotics, space engineering and exploration, as well as our ongoing commitment to the European Space Agency.

News of the latest stage of the robot's development comes just days after the Chinese successfully landed its probe on the surface of the planet.

China, which hosts this depiction of a Chinese lander in a Mars-like environment in Beijing, recently brought lunar samples back to Earth Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

That followed the successful landing of NASA's Perseverance probe, which carries sensors developed in Essex.

Its mission is to seek out signs that microbial life once existed on the planet, it will be collecting a range of samples which will then be returned to earth for study.

Stevenage-based Airbus Space and Defence is working on a probe which will do just that as part of a European Space Agency project.