Due to distance time-lag and complexity, ExoMars will self-navigate using 'smart' electro-optics to visually sense and interpret the surrounding terrain and will be capable of operating autonomously using intelligent onboard software.
Automated control a major advance
This automated mode of operation is a major advance for ESA, long used to controlling spacecraft directly using human controllers. And not only will the rover's onboard control systems be new.
"ExoMars will require entirely new techniques and technology for several aspects of the Earth-based rover control system, not just an upgrade of what we have today," says Mike McKay, a senior spacecraft controller and Mars expert based at ESOC, ESA's Spacecraft Operations Centre, in Darmstadt, Germany.
ESA spacecraft have long had some ability to make independent decisions based on external influences. For example, onboard instruments will automatically shut down if solar radiation suddenly rises, or the spacecraft will automatically switch into a diagnostic 'safe mode' if anything goes wrong. But for the most part, lengthy instructions still must be pre-programmed by mission controllers on Earth and sent up for later, step-by-step, execution.
And ESA controllers have never before operated a mission that moved about on the surface of another body; Huygens which touched down successfully on Titan in 2005 was an atmospheric probe and not a lander, although it functioned briefly after reaching Titan's surface.
Robotic task: traverse kilometres of terrain in search of life
In one typical example of the rover's autonomous operation, ground controllers might radio up a high-level command telling it to drive to a scient
Contact: Jocelyne Landeau-Constantin
European Space Agency