Sandpit mimics surface of Mars

Braintree and Witham Times: A robotic vehicle on the Mars Yard test area A robotic vehicle on the Mars Yard test area

Aerospace pioneers Airbus have opened a giant sand pit in Stevenage in an effort to mimic the surface of Mars.

The Mars Yard test area is said to provide a "realistic and representative martian environment".

The ExoMars robot will be able to travel and explore the test area for a distance of up to 70 metres a day.

The facility is about a third of the size of a football pitch and con tains 300 tonnes of specially selected sand. It includes design features to ensure that the environment is the closest match possible to Mars.

The walls, doors, and all interior surfaces are painted a reddish-brown colour mimicking the background colour on Mars, and the yard also includes a large mural of the martian landscape.

The Mars Yard will be used up until launch and will also be kept available after the rover has landed on the surface of Mars in 2019 - if necessary to address any problem by simulating the situation on Earth.

Manufacture of the flight rover will begin early in 2015 after construction of an advanced clean room for interplanetary missions at Airbus DS's Stevenage site. Mission launch is planned for 2018.

Business secretary Vince Cable, who was present at the opening today, said: "The ExoMars rover represents the best of British high-value manufacturing. The technologies developed as part of the programme, such as autonomous navigation systems, new welding materials and techniques, will also have real impacts on other sectors, helping them stay on the cutting edge.

"Not only is it hugely exciting that Europe's next mission to Mars will be British built, but it is incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of our investment in the European Space Agency creating jobs here in the UK."

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