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Europeans Unveil Next Generation Prototype Of Mars Rover

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AP Photo / Lefteris Pitarakis

The plan is to develop an autonomous robotic vehicle that can be launched in 2018 as part of the European Space Agency's ExoMars program, an ambitious plan that begins in 2016 with the launch of a Mars orbiter and demonstrator landing module.

The goal is to bring samples of Mars back to Earth by the 2020s.

The rovers being developed at the Airbus Defense and Space facility will be able to drill for samples and "feed" them into an onboard laboratory. The information gleaned can then be sent back to Earth.

The data transmissions could even contain proof that living organisms on Mars had been found, said Abbie Hutty, an engineer charged with helping to make the rover tough enough. The rover's drill is designed to penetrate two meters (six feet) beneath the surface, probing an area shielded from radiation and containing water deposits.

"If there was life, that's where we would expect to find it," she said.

The rover will be in communication with controllers on Earth twice a day and be able to use transmitted information to navigate to new destinations on Mars. It has a complex navigation system that relies on a pair of cameras mounted on a mast. These map the safest and fastest navigation route, determining which rocks the rover can handle and which must be avoided.

But the rover won't be fast — its maximum range is about 70 meters (210 feet) per day.

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