ExoMars rover testing is progressing and deep in depth

Science & Exploration



ESA’s Rosalind Franklin twin rover is back on its wheels and has dug 1.7 meters into Martian-like soil in Italy – about 25 times deeper than any other rover has ever attempted on Mars. The rover also collected samples for analysis under the watchful eye of European science teams.


This was the third successful deep-drilling test on Earth for the European Wheel Laboratory, an operation crucial to answering the question of whether there was or is life on the Red Planet.

A year has passed since the launch of the rover mission was put on hold and then cancelled, but work hasn’t stopped for the ExoMars teams in Europe. Today, ESA, together with international and industrial partners, is redesigning the ExoMars mission Rosalind Franklin with new European elements and a target date of 2028 for the journey to Mars.

ExoMars: Back on course to the Red Planet

Amalia, the Rover test model, was neither idle nor far from its twin. The Rosalind Franklin rover that will fly to Mars waits patiently in the ultra-clean room at Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy. Fully representative of what Rosalind will be doing on the Red Planet, engineers used the Amalia rover to explore a Martian terrain simulator at the ALTEC site in search of a drill site.

deep drilling

drilling time

Amalia took her time perforating a well filled with soil — soft silica on the surface, followed by layers of sand and fine volcanic soil, all similar to what Rosalind the rover might encounter beneath the surface of Mars.

On the third day of test excavation, the drill bit was stretched almost to its maximum and reached its target – a gypsum mineral from the Turin region commonly found in water-associated sedimentary deposits.

Oxia Planum up close

The find was relevant to Martian geology because the target landing site for the rover, Oxia Planum, is an area where sediments could preserve traces of an ancient water-rich Martian environment. Oxia Planum will be the geologically oldest visited landing site on Mars when Rosalind Franklin lands there in 2030.

Scientists want to go very deep to access well-preserved organic material from four billion years ago, when conditions on the Martian surface were more like those on early Earth and the area may have harbored microorganisms.

The record for the deepest drill bit yet dug and sampled on the Red Planet is 7.1 cm, and it is currently owned by NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Valuable sampling

The test in Turin with Amalia was deemed successful when on day four the drill took a sample in the form of a pellet about 1 cm in diameter and delivered it to the lab in the rover’s belly.

Precious ExoMars sampling

Once the drill was fully retracted, the pellet was dropped into a drawer, which retracted and transferred the sample to a crushing station. The resulting powder is distributed to furnaces and containers for scientific analysis.

The entire operation was aided by the rover’s eyes. The panoramic camera suite, known as PanCam, used its high-resolution camera to closely examine rock structure and grain size in color.

On Mars, this powerful camera will help remotely examine very fine detail in outcrops, rocks and soils, find the most promising drill sites, and then capture high-resolution images of the samples held in the core sample transfer mechanism holder. before being sent to the rover’s lab.

Crushed sample ready for ExoMars rover analysis

At the same time, the close-up imager CLUPI, mounted on the outside of the drill itself, provided detailed views of the tailings pile disturbed by the drilling operation, as well as the sample in the holder on its way to the laboratory.

Reliable acquisition of deep samples, protected from the harsh surface radiation environment, is key to ExoMars’ main scientific goal: to study the chemical composition of the soil and thereby possible signs of life.

The drill was developed by Italian company Leonardo, while Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for ExoMars.

driver’s seat

The data received from the deep drilling simulation in chorus with the scientific instruments formed the basis for further testing. The science team in the control room received a mix of test data, simulated data from other Mars-like samples, and a series of images of the sample and the drill site.

Control center for operating the ExoMars rover

Scientists were challenged to react quickly and create an action plan for the next sol, or Martian day, to send to the rover on Mars.

“These simulations are valuable because they put us in the driver’s seat in an immersive environment – so we can practice and refine how we’re going to conduct Rosalind Franklin rover operations,” explains Elliot Sefton-Nash, project scientist for the ExoMars-Rosalind -Franklin Mission.

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