MURFI Rover Trial: UK scientists prepare to drive rovers on Mars

By Leanne Gunn

The popularity of science fiction films and books shows us that there is something very exciting about exploring other worlds and planets. For many people this stops at fiction, however, for planetary scientists, like Dr Matthew Balme and Dr Peter Fawdon, exploring Mars is their job, it’s what they do every single day!

An infilled crater on Mars Image provided by Dr P. Fawdon

An infilled crater on Mars
Image: HRSC-ESA-Mars-Express

How do you explore Mars?

Exploring our own planet is not always easy, but exploring Mars is even harder. At least on Earth scientists can visit the place they are studying and learn from it first-hand. However, for planetary scientists a research trip to Mars is a distant dream and instead they have to rely on other methods to gain insight into what Mars is actually like.

It is thanks to a combination of planetary scientists and engineers that rovers and orbiters have been sent to Mars to get a closer look at the Planet. Without those robots and the data that they send back to Earth, we would know far less about the surface of Mars and its atmosphere.

Preparation is Everything

So far only the American Space Agency NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) have successfully sent rovers to Mars, but the European Space Agency (ESA) are starting to get in on the action as part of their ongoing ExoMars mission.

When it comes missions like these preparation is everything. We are talking about sending a very expensive rover into space and then landing it safely on a Planet over 30 million miles away, preferably in a place where it is likely to actually find something exciting.

Scientists with test versions of three generations of Mars rover. showing their size. Left = Mars Exploration Rover similar to Spirit and Opportunity, Center = Flight spare of Sojourner (first Rover on Mars), Right = Test Rover of Curiosity.  CC-BY- NASA

Scientists with test versions of three generations of Mars rover showing their size.
Left = Mars Exploration Rover similar to Spirit and Opportunity, Center = Flight spare of Sojourner (first Rover on Mars), Right = Test Rover of Curiosity.
CC-BY- NASA

In an attempt to ensure that everything goes to plan a huge number of scientist and engineers, from different organisations and different countries, will be involved and working together. For European missions like ExoMars some of those scientist are based in the UK. Currently the UKSA (UK Space Agency, yes we have one to!) are working on a very exciting project called MURFI to prepare for the UK involvement in future missions, such as the European Rover ExoMars due to launch in 2020.

murfi

What is MURFI?

MURFI is the “Mars Utah Rover Field Investigation”, a collaboration between the UK and Canadian Space Agencies (UKSA and CSA) designed to trial out and practice remote rover operations.

To make this as realistic as possible the MURFI team has been split into two groups. One group is based in Utah looking after a small rover and pretending to be on Mars. The other group is based in Harwell, Oxfordshire where they are acting as mission control.

Mission control in Harwell, Oxfordshire Image credit: MURFI team

Mission control in Harwell, Oxfordshire
Image credit: MURFI team

Each day the UK scientists in Harwell send instructions to the rover team in Utah. They then follow those instructions by driving the rover, collecting the requested data and sending it back to the UK team for analysis.

The point of this project is not to explore Utah. If they wanted to do that they could just go there themselves! Instead it has been designed to train the UK scientists in what it is like to work together in conditions similar to those of a real rover operation team.

While it might sounds a bit like an overly complicated team building exercise preparation like this is vital to the success of missions like ExoMars. From the moment a rover lands on Mars every minute is used to its fullest potential. As a result working days are long, time pressure is intense and the consequence of errors can be catastrophic. It is important to put teams through processes like this so that they know what they are letting themselves in for.

The view from the Rover. The 5 large boulders have been affectionately named "Monday", "Tuesday", "Wednesday", "Thursday" and "Friday" and help the scientists in Harwell to orientate themselves on the barren Utah landscape. Image Credit: MURFI team

The view from the Rover.
The 5 large boulders in this image have been affectionately named “Monday”, “Tuesday”, “Wednesday”, “Thursday” and “Friday” by the team in Harwell. They use these “week day rocks” to orientate themselves on the barren Utah landscape.
Image Credit: MURFI team

When is MURFI happening?

The MURFI mission began a week ago with a few practice runs and a chance to iron out any teething problems. The formal trial lasts 8-10 days and began on the 3rd November 2016. If you would like to find out more and keep up to date with MURFI check out their mission website where both the UK and the Utah team a keeping and up-to-date blog.

Image credits: MURFI team

Image credits: MURFI team

Collaboration with science made simple

Dr Matt Balme and Dr Peter Fawdon from The Open University and Birkbeck College in London are two of the UK scientists involved in the MURFI mission. We are currently working closely with them both to develop a new science show all about Mars.

The “Exploring Mars” show is still under development but should be complete and ready for bookings in 2017. Keep an eye on our website for updates about this exciting new science show.


 

sms group shot with props smallWe are science made simple, a social enterprise who perform science, maths and engineering shows to schools, festivals and public audiences.

 You can find out more about what we do, check out our excitingrange of shows, or sign up to our newsletter to keep updated on what we are up to!
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