High-speed hunt for life on Mars

A UK-built robot is set dramatically to speed up the search for life on Mars, European space scientists were being told today. The roving explorer, nicknamed Bridget, will be intelligent enough to decide for itself which martian rocks are best to investigate.

It will work three times faster than previous robots such as Nasa’s rovers Spirit and Opportunity which are currently weathering the tail end of a huge dust storm on Mars.

A six-wheeled prototype of the rover, named after Brigitte Bardot, has been undergoing tests at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. Scientists there have developed an automatic system to allow Bridget to see its surroundings in 3D and look for evidence of alien life.

The robot, which is designed to fly to the Red Planet as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission in 2013, is being built by EADS Astrium at Stevenage, Herts. Dr Dave Barnes was in Potsdam, Germany, today to present results from the University of Wales’s tests to the European Planetary Science Congress.

Preparing for the presentation, he said: “This system allows the rover to do more than find nice flat areas to drill. The versatility of our system and its ability to pinpoint the best site to take samples, even from complex micro-features on rocks, could be vital when looking for evidence of exobiology.”

The Welsh scientists have turned a 250 square metre part of Abersytwyth into a replica of the martian landscape for their tests. They call it the Mars Yard. Nasa, meanwhile, have their latest Mars mission, Phoenix, currently en route for the Red Planet.

You may be wondering why the space wags have dubbed their rover Bridget. Engineering jargon calls prototypes like Bridget a “Breadboard”. That get shortened to “BB” – just like Brigitte Bardot.

Picture: An ESA artist’s impression of the ExoMars rover.

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