Mars, the next planet you encounter when journeying away from the Sun, has fascinated people since ancient times due to its red colour. This led to the planet being assigned to the Roman God of War. After having sent man to the Moon, the next possible destination for us within our solar system would be Mars, as conditions on Venus, the planet usually closest to us, are too life-threatening.
Before we send humans to Mars, we have to know exactly what conditions they are likely to encounter there. Numerous probes have orbited Mars in the last 50 years and have sent precise pictures of the planet’s surface to Earth. Today, it is possible to make Mars globes that are just as accurate as those we have of Earth.
The Gale crater: Curiosity’s landing site and research area. Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS
But not everything on Mars can be explored from a great height. Robots – or Mars rovers – have landed on the surface of Mars. The most recent rover to have landed on Mars is also the largest so far: Curiosity landed in August 2012. How can we steer these robots? How can we make sure they carry out their research where we want them to? And how can we prevent them from falling into a hole or getting trapped between two rocks?
Mars rover Curiosity is a mobile laboratory. One of its tasks is searching for traces of life. Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech.
Our experiment will show you that steering a Mars rover in an unknown environment is not so easy, particularly when you have only the robot’s “eyes” to see with. Things become even more difficult if we send our signals with a few seconds delay. How hard would it be to work around 3 to 20 minutes delay? There is no around it: Mars rovers need to be equipped with enough “intelligent” commands for them to be able to make decisions by themselves.