Tank-inspired robot set to hunt microbes on Mars
LONDON (AFP) May 02, 2003
Scientists in Britain have designed a tank-inspired robot set to hunt microbes on Mars and and establish whether human colonies could survive in the hostile environment of the Red Planet.

Researchers say they turned to military-inspired caterpillar tracks which change shape as they roll over obstacles.

The 40,000-euro (45,000 dollars) research at Kingston University near London, funded by the European Space Agency, is aimed at getting the robot to Mars by 2011.

"Even though an actual mission to Mars is still many years away, the new vehicle could prove crucial in helping to determine the type of survival equipment needed in the future," Alex Ellery, research team leader, told AFP.

The robot, named Endurance, is designed to rove the planet's surface using solar power, drilling beneath the surface to search for traces of life in the form of microbes.

The surface of Mars is saturated with hydrogen peroxide -- also found in laundry bleach -- which destroys organic matter, so the robot must drill beneath this corrosive layer.

"If there are traces of life, they will be beneath that layer," said Ellery.

The biggest challenge was to design a vehicle capable of roaming the rugged and varied Martian landscape without rolling over. Gravity on Mars is about one-third of that on Earth, rendering exploration more difficult as there is less traction.

Endurance will also be equipped with a sophisticated suspension system to protect its fragile instruments.

A prototype is due to be built in coming months by the British company Qinetiq and the German research agency DLR at a cost of around 350,000 euros.

Weighing a mere 30 kilos (66 lbs), the prototype will be packed with drilling equipment and instruments for analysing samples.

If everything goes according to plan, Endurance will be blasted to Mars for a six-month mission in 2009 or 2011.