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A panoramic scientific camera system designed at University College London has been fitted to the UK’s Rosalind Franklin rover, allowing it to examine the surface of Mars and look for evidence of life.

The new PanCam apparatus will form the scientific eyes of the robot vehicle, which launches to the red planet in August 2020 and is due to land in March 2021.

Via the UK-built sensor apparatus, scientists will receive a detailed 3D view of the Martian terrain and its geological features, and also be able to observe phenomena such as dust storms and water in the atmosphere.

The system was fitted to the rover at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, which is building the Rosalind Franklin robot.

The rover is part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Mission. With over £250 million invested in the programme and a further £14 million in its instrumentation, the UK is the second biggest financial contributor after Italy, according to government figures.

With funding and support from both the UK Space Agency and ESA, PanCam was developed in Britain by scientists from UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), working with the University of Aberystwyth and other experts across the UK, in partnership with colleagues in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and nine other countries.

Scientists from the University of Leicester and Teledyne e2v are also working on the rover’s Raman Spectrometer, which will be deployed to help identify Martian minerals. The UK Science and Technology Facilities Council is providing some of the electronics, including the data processing board.

In May, experts at ESA’s centre in Oxfordshire completed a series of tests in the Atacama Desert, 6,900 miles away, to see how the rover reacts to even small communications delay. Mars is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth, making autonomous operations an essential part of robotic interplanetary exploration, given the lengthy radio time lags that occur over vast distances.

Science Minister Jo Johnson said, “The UK is determined to play a leading role in the new space age, with our innovative companies and world-class universities exploring the solar system and bringing the benefits of scientific discoveries back to Earth.

“The supremely complex Rosalind Franklin Mars rover is a testament to the strength of the UK space industry, our scientific experts, commitment to the European Space Agency, and our support for international collaborations in research.”

Professor Andrew Coates, PanCam Principal Investigator from the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, added, “PanCam is the most sophisticated scientific camera system ever to be sent to the surface of Mars and is part of a mission that has the best chance yet of discovering life beyond Earth.

“Our wide-angle cameras will do more than is possible with human eyes by identifying water-rich minerals and studying water and dust in the atmosphere. They also will map the rover’s surrounding in 3D, the high-resolution camera will add rock texture and detail, and can watch for hazards underneath the rover.

“Our engineering team has dedicated more than fifteen years to delivering PanCam, and it’s thrilling to see all their hard work now being added to this amazing rover. We proposed the instrument in 2003, merged competing teams, designed, built, tested, and calibrated the instrument with a fantastic UK and international team. Now we are ready to go. Next stop Mars!”

  •  At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, other technologies are enabling terrestrial scientists to explore the surface of Mars. NASA’s OnSight application gives scientists anywhere in the world a virtual presence and meeting point on the planet, via Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets.

Using detailed images gathered by robots and satellites, the headsets can create an immersive, 360-degree view of the Martian terrain. Using the technology, Earth-based scientists can walk around the planet as avatars, and bring up detailed sensor data from the surface of Mars from each pixel in the 3D reproduction.

Similar applications allow NASA engineers to explore full-resolution CAD models of space stations and other installations – a use case that could be emulated in the manufacturing, engineering, and energy sectors, using digital twins.

We’re moving dates. The Sensor Show is on 8th–11th December, 2020
David Wilson, Commercial Director | [email protected] | +44 (0)7837 738 326 | +44 (0)1273 805 355