Space | 27. June 2017 | posted by Manuela Braun

ROBEX Part 2: Lander on a trolley

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

500. 350. 80. On Friday, these numbers set the rhythm. Weighing in at 500 kilograms, the RODIN lander will be taken 350 metres from its current location, 80 metres downhill. The lander was initially kept near base camp – the perfect location for carrying out repairs following its transit to Sicily and for the first tests and connection to the control room on Mount Etna. To conduct the actual 'Moon mission', the RODIN lander will be on the Piano del Lago.

The plain – located between Torre del Filosofo and La Montagnola crater – was once covered with meltwater. This changed when Mount Etna erupted in 2001; ash was spewn all over the plain and the Laghetto crater was formed. An ash blanket now covers a solidified layer of lava. It is its thickness that DLR planetary researchers want to measure. To do this, the heavy lander needs to be moved. Once lifted onto a trolley with rollers, the lander was able to start its descent down the slope.##markend##

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Rather than standing on its landing feet, RODIN is moved on a trolley

The previous evening, however, engineers and scientists were still discussing their options. Is it better for the lander to be put in the plain itself or where the initial tests were carried out? After all, it was safe there, although this is not how the intended 'Moon' scenario was meant to play out. After a long discussion, a decision was finally made: RODIN would be moved the next day to the moon-like plain at all costs. Come Friday noon, everything was set. On board a trolley, the lander made its way towards the 'Moon' without its landing feet, which had been disassembled. To keep the vehicle and the 500-kilogram lander from sinking into the ash, base plates are laid out for the trolley to roll across.

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
The lander makes its way to its destination by rolling over plate after plate

With a little choreography, Sabrina Schwinger and Caroline Lange keep setting down plates in front of the lander to create a path. If and when it looks like RODIN is going to lose its balance or head off course, the engineers and planetary researchers pull the valuable load back on track using four straps. There are always three to four helpers towards the back of the trolley fighting against the force of 500 kilograms rolling down the plain.

Dancing with a lander

The lander creakily rolls its way over the base plates. Dust swirls up in the air as the helpers move the plates from the back of the lander to the front. The straps are pulled. Commands from Peter Kyr can be heard regularly up ahead: "A little to the right. Steady. Straight, go straight. Careful, you're tilting." As soon as the plates have been placed in front, the lander moves forward another metre: "three, two, one, go," Roland Rosta says, calling out the speed, which everyone listens to carefully and follows in order to guide the trolley. This peculiar transport becomes ever more engulfed in the gathering fog and gives rise to some issues; then once again the Sun shines through.

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Dramatic backdrop in the recurring fog

'Landing' on the Moon plain

Just a day before, things were not looking as bright. There were fears that the slope would be too steep. In the end, everything ran like clockwork. After just an hour and a half, RODIN takes up its position on the 'landing site' on the large plain below the Laghetto cone. No one is cold, despite the cool wind on Mount Etna. Everyone's legs are covered in a fine dusting of volcanic ash stretching all the way up to their knees; their backs aching. First, the team from the DLR Institute of Space Systems brings the lander back to life. And then it's time for the first measurements to be taken by the planetary researchers.

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About the author

Manuela Braun is editor for space. As a qualified journalist for both print and online media, she loves nothing more than asking questions. Her favourite thing of all is being there, in the midst of the action. to authorpage

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