ROBEX Part 1: Mission in the lava landscape
A journey to the Moon is an arduous one, even if this 'Moon' is located here on Earth, 2600 metres above sea level, directly on Mount Etna.
A heavy transporter winds its way slowly and laboriously through the narrow, serpentine roads above Catania in Sicily to arrive at our lunar destination. The landscape becomes increasingly black as the team from the HGF Alliance ROBEX (Robotic Exploration under Extreme Conditions) approaches its temporary work location. Everyone clambers into all-terrain vehicles at Rifugio Sapienza to cover the last stretch to base camp, which is located right in the middle of a lava field. There, one lander, two rovers and several seismometers have been prepared for this one and a half week 'mission'. For the next four weeks, the on-site containers will be home to the almost 50 team members from DLR, AWI, the University of Würzburg and the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, where they will function as multipurpose laboratories, workshops and offices.##markend##
The cooperation, comprising 16 German institutes from deep sea and space research, is tasked with investigating the best way of dispatching Rovers to explore unknown, extremely inaccessible regions as autonomously as possible. Mount Etna was chosen as the site for these 'space explorers' to put the developments and insights of the last five years through a rigorous series of tests. The two rovers will have to overcome slopes on their own, traversing areas strewn with porous lava granules. This landscape, which to the camera 'eyes' of the rovers could well be the Moon, is set on a permanently active volcano, rocked by minor earthquakes. There are not many such places on Earth that so perfectly simulate the conditions on the Moon.
Travelling through Italy by lorry
Travelling over land and by ferry, part of the team embarked on the trip to Sicily with several containers full of equipment. The first days were spent unloading and assembling the gear, repairing minor damage from transport, and setting up the communications network on the mountain. The ultimate goal of the mission is to make a rover autonomously make its way to a lander, unload mobile measurement stations (remote units), position them at previously defined spots and then measure the activity of the volcano and gain insight into its various layers. Here, the commands for the rover to complete its tasks will be given from a small control room set up at the hotel in Catania.
Naturally, the meteorological conditions on Mount Etna differ significantly from those encountered on the Moon: for the first few days, the Sun glared down on the engineers and scientists, and today they find themselves hit by a nasty wind. Below them, along the coast, tourists bathe in the sun wearing nothing but T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, while up on Etna, at around 11:30, a wall of clouds rises up, causing the temperature to drop. A windbreaker and a hat are sensible apparel on this 'Moon on Earth'.
Each mission has its teething problems, and it is no different here: sometimes there are issues with the communications network, while other times the rover experiences minor difficulties. At the end of June/start of July, the complete mission scenario will be carried out from start to finish. So far, the rover has already demonstrated that it recognises the RODIN lander, travels towards it and collects the experiments. The journey to the deployment positions and release of the measurement instruments have already been tested successfully as well.
Hammer blows and a rumbling volcano
The goal of the mission is two-fold: first, the rover will be asked to deposit four sensor units on the dark surface, where they will passively record volcanic activity. Second, planetary researchers will send sound waves through the ground, using hammer blows, to determine their propagation through the various strata. But before that, engineers will have to get the Rover LRU-2 (Lightweight Rover Unit) in shape so it can perform scientific experiments as autonomously as possible.
A small group of tourists wanders into base camp: besides it lava-strewn landscape and smoking summit, Mount Etna holds yet another attraction: a lander and a rover. Tourists are welcome to take photographs, but are asked not to wander onto the grounds. DLR planetary researchers explain what ROBEX is all about to the holidaymakers. Meanwhile, the LRU Rover travels another few metres along. The metal wheels spin before they can find traction in the lava granules. It is almost like being on the Moon, yet not quite as far away.