To prepare for the next mission to Mars in 2020, NASA has taken to the lava fields of Iceland to get its new robotic space explorer ready for the job.
With its black basalt sand, wind-swept dunes and harsh peaks, the Lambahraun lava field at the foot of Iceland’s second biggest glacier, Langjokull, was chosen as a stand-in for the Red Planet’s surface.
For three weeks in July, 15 scientists and engineers sent by the US space agency descended on the site, 100 kilometres from the capital, Reykjavik, to develop a prototype.
It is set to continue the work of the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012 in search of signs of ancient life, and making preparations for human exploration.
Experts say that Iceland, a volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, is in many ways similar to the fourth planet from the sun.
The company has been commissioned by NASA to test a rover prototype as part of the Sand-e (Semi-Autonomous Navigation for Detrital Environments) project.
The prototype is a small, electric vehicle with white panels and orange machinery. It has a four-wheel drive propelled by two motors and is powered by 12 small car batteries.
“This rover we have... [is] basically indestructible,” said Adam Deslauriers, manager of space and education at Canada’s Mission Control Space Services.
“The rovers that we have on Mars and the moon would be a lot more sensitive to the environment and conditions of Iceland."
“A moon rover is completely unprepared for rain,” he added, just as a rain shower swept in.
Using its sensors and camera, the rover gathers and classifies data from its environment and sends the findings to the engineers’ trailer.
The engineers then package the data and forward it to a tent where the scientists are, to simulate how the data would be sent from Mars to Earth.
Before Mars became an unfavourable frozen desert with an average temperature of minus 63 degrees Celsius, scientists believe the planet shared many of the characteristics of the subarctic island.
“The mineralogy in Iceland is very similar to what we would find on Mars,” Ryan Ewing, associate professor of geology at Texas A&M University in the US, said.
“In addition to that, we don’t have much vegetation, it’s cold and we have some of the environments like sand dunes and rivers and glaciers that Mars has evidence of in the past,” Ewing added.
Iceland has previously been used as a training ground for NASA missions. During the Apollo mission years, 32 astronauts in the mid-1960s received geological training in the Askja lava fields and near the Krafla crater in the north of the country.
Mission Control says it is planning to return to Iceland next summer before the launch of the next Mars rover mission, scheduled between July 17 and August 5, 2020.