SAFER: The promising results of the Mars mission simulation campaign in Atacama, Chile

Gunes-Lasnet, Sev; Kisidi, A.; van Winnendael, Michel; Josset, J.-L.; Ciarletti, V.; Barnes, D.; Griffiths, A.; Paar, G.; Schwenzer, Susanne; Pullan, Derek; Allouis, E.; Waugh, L.; Woods, M.; Shaw, A. and Chong Diaz, Guillermo (2014). SAFER: The promising results of the Mars mission simulation campaign in Atacama, Chile. In: I-SAIRAS 2014: 12th International Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation in Space, 17-19 Jun 2014, Montreal, Canada.


The SAFER project (Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover), led by RAL Space and sponsored by the European Space Agency, was successfully concluded by a Mars Mission Simulation campaign in the Atacama Desert in October 2013.

The objectives of SAFER were manifolds: Firstly, bring three ExoMars instruments prototypes together on a rover platform. Secondly, perform field trials in a Mars analogue in order to acquire valuable insight on the strategies for approaching a science target, investigating it, and sampling it to investigate possible traces of life. Lastly, the SAFER project targeted to implement a highly realistic scenario with a dual team, one with the rover system in a Mars analogue location, while all navigation and science investigation decisions would be taken remotely by a separate team, fully isolated from the field.

The Atacama Desert in Chile was selected during the study as suitable Mars analogue for SAFER: Its extent, variety of landscapes, high quality Mars analogue and geological characteristics are all of high relevance for a Mars mission simulation.
SAFER used an early version of ESA’s 2018 ExoMars rover, provided by Astrium, fitted with a trio of ExoMars prototype instruments, including the AUPE-2 PANCAM prototype from Aberystwyth University, the WISDOM ground penetrating radar prototype from LATMOS, and a CLUPI prototype provided by Space-X. All three instruments were used to identify promising sites for subsurface excavation.

During the Mars mission simulation a field trials team composed of instruments engineers, geologists, and field trials engineers was on location in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
The remote control team was in parallel overseeing the rover operations from the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Harwell, UK. The remote control team was composed of instrument operators, key members of the ExoMars programme team, ExoMars instruments principal investigators and a geologist. The controllers used a video wall to combine data from the rover’s instruments with their own 3D planning maps to help the remote team to analyse instruments data, elaborate a science strategy, and produce plans of activities for each sol, as it would be performed during a Mars exploration mission.
Each plan was dispatched to the local team in the field who then uploaded it to the rover, while trying to remain as ‘invisible’ as possible for the remote operators.

The SAFER campaign was a success and its results are opening the way to successful, safe, and optimized planetary exploration for the European Space Agency:
Firstly, remote operations with an average of two Martian sols per day were achieved, including the acquisition of valuable instruments data. Drilling down to more than a meter was achieved by manual operation, and the samples obtained are being documented to help cross calibrating the ground penetrating instrument data and support future Mars exploration missions.

Secondly, SAFER unique outcomes and lessons learnt will be transmitted to the European Space Agency’s planetary exploration teams; a key outcome has been the importance of well-defined interfaces between the rover and instruments, the importance of the remote operations team composition, and valuable operations lessons learnt demonstrating feasible activities to be achieved in a single Martian sol. Valuable instruments operations feedback was also acquired and will be presented in the final paper.

Finally, SAFER opens the way to efficient, easy, and cost effective future field trials activities; an extensive expertise in the organization of such trials has been developed, as well as a detailed knowledge of the Atacama region which has proven to be a highly representative analogue for Mars mission simulations.

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