Test drives of a Mars mobile in a high-tech sandbox

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Test drives of a Mars mobile in a high-tech sandbox

Oerlikon Space is currently testing an autonomous robotic vehicle for Mars; in the year 2015, as part of its ExoMars scientific mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to land an autonomous robot of this type on the Red Planet to search for signs of life there. The Zurich-based space company Oerlikon Space is developing the locomotion system for the Mars rover. A full-scale preliminary test model of the rover was completed in mid-April and is now undergoing a series of rigorous tests lasting about a month. The specialists from Oerlikon Space have set up a special "test terrain" for this purpose, where they can simulate the conditions that the rover will encounter when it has to travel over the surface of Mars.

The surface of Mars consists mainly of very fine sand. The Oerlikon engineers have therefore set up a 20-square-metre "sandpit" for the tests, filled with extremely fine-grained sand. The rover needs to be easy to manoeuvre on soft ground. It is vital that the vehicle should not get bogged down, as - if the worst came to the worst - this could result in a premature end to the mission. With this in mind, the engineers have equipped the Mars robot with specially designed flexible wheels whose underside changes shape under the 250-kg weight of the vehicle, thus enlarging the supporting surface as much as possible. The wheels of the test model are made of steel, but later, on the "real" Mars rover, they will be made of titanium. The wheel drive and steering systems are also designed for a maximum of flexibility. Each of the six wheels is driven by a separate motor and can be steered independently of the other wheels.

Forward motion and turning manoeuvres in the soft sand are among the easier tasks that the ExoMars Rover has to master during the test campaign at Oerlikon. The situation is less straightforward when the Mars robot has to travel across slopes and gradients, or when it is unable to circumnavigate an obstacle and has to climb over it. During the test campaign the rover also has to move across slopes and gradients without overturning. The Mars craft must also clamber over vertical obstacles such as rocks up to 25 cm high.

The engineers from Oerlikon Space have been developing the propulsion system for the ExoMars rover for one year. They are assisted in their task by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and German space company von Hoerner & Sulger.

The preliminary development of the locomotion system will be finished on completion of the present test campaign. Oerlikon Space is currently negotiating a contract to undertake the responsibility for the locomotion system in the subsequent phases of development and construction as well. "We are optimistic that we shall soon be able to conclude these negotiations successfully," states Axel Deich, CEO of the Zurich-based space company. "Then, in 2015, Oerlikon technology will land on Mars for the first time."

Oerlikon Space

Oerlikon Space AG is Switzerland’s leading space company. Some 330 highly qualified employees at the company’s headquarters in Zurich are engaged in developing and manufacturing high-tech subsystems and components for missions in space. Oerlikon Space supplies the payload fairings for the Ariane 5 and Vega European launchers. The company is involved in numerous institutional and commercial space programmes around the world with its ultra-lightweight, high-stability structures, precision mechanisms, and innovative products such as laser terminals for optical communication between satellites.


Oerlikon (SWX: OERL) is one of the world’s most successful high-tech industrial groups specializing in machine and plant engineering. The company is a leader in the field of industrial solutions and innovative technologies for textile manufacture, thin-film solar and thin-film coating, drive, precision and vacuum systems. With roots in Switzerland and a long tradition stretching back 100 years, Oerlikon is a global player with a workforce of more than 19,000 at 170 locations in 35 different countries. The company’s sales amounted to CHF 5.6 billion and it ranks either first or second in the respective global markets. In 2007, approx. 5 per cent of the turnover was invested in research and development (CHF 274 million).