Europe field tests rovers in Morocco's Mars-like desert landscape

Multiple European space agencies recently deployed Mars rovers in Morocco for field tests conducted in a Mars-like environment. According to the European Space Agency, the tests took place on the Sahara Desert's northern edge, which the Europlanet Research Infrastructure designated as a site that is very similar to the Martian landscape. The tests involved three Mars rovers and more than 40 engineers.

The ESA, which coordinated the field testing, explains that this spat in Morocco was the first phase of a "strategic research cluster" involving space robotics. That cluster involves space agencies with France, Italy, the UK, Spain, and Germany, all partners under the PERASPERA Ad Astra project, which is coordinating the cluster.

During this initial research phase, three Mars rovers spent a total of two weeks in the Sahara Desert, where engineers conducted field tests to verify the suitability of the rover designs. The location is described as Mars-like, and according to the ESA, is popular enough that the researchers had to share space with a Hollywood film crew.

Mars is the next great human frontier, but exploration of the planet is still in its infancy. Multiple space agencies currently have spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet, and NASA has successfully deployed three rovers on Mars, though only two are functional at this time. Multiple European space agencies are developing additional Mars rovers, however, with plans to deploy them on the Martian landscape in coming years.

One of the rovers, the SherpaTT, successfully traveled 1.3km autonomously, going so far as to find and them trigger the scientific study of unusual rocks entirely on its own. This autonomous functionality is essential for future scientific missions. Talking about that is ESA's Automation and Robotics head Gianfranco Visentin, who explained:

This is important for the future, when there will be many more rovers going to Mars and they'll be moving hundreds of meters per day. There won't be schools of analysts to scrutinize every image – intelligent rover systems will be needed to detect what is interesting and send it back to Earth.

With this initial phase successfully completed, the project plans to enter a new phase that will help pave the way for a planned orbital robotics space mission demonstration scheduled for 2023.