Mars is going mobile – and TÜV SÜD is along for the ride

The countdown is on: A European rover will traverse the surface of Mars for the first time in 2018. Specialists from TÜV SÜD are also participating in preparations for this mission

The ExoMars Rover equals a mid-range car in size.
Illustration: ESA

A space probe the size of a mid-range car will launch toward Mars in 2016 and orbit the planet. A Mars landing is planned two years later. The name of this mission: ExoMars. And Hans-Jürgen Cramer is the man at TÜV SÜD who inspects components for the probe and the Mars rover.

Sometimes parts land in his lab that have already traveled in space. That’s always a very special moment for Hans-Jürgen Cramer despite his 20 years of experience in the area of nondestructive testing:

“Holding something in your hands that was in space is simply marvelous.”

However, at the moment he is testing components for OHB System AG that still have their first flight ahead of them. A very long flight – because it will take them to our neighboring planet, Mars. Mars is between 56 and 401 million km distant from the earth depending on its position in its elliptical orbit around the sun. ExoMars is a joint mission of the European Space Agency, ESA, and Russia’s Roscosmos. It aims to answer the question of whether there was ever life on Mars, or perhaps still is. To do so, it will analyze the biological environment of Mars’ surface. The mission consists of two phases: A space probe will launch toward Mars and orbit it in 2016. Two years later the ExoMars Rover, which weighs 350 kg, will land in the red dust on the planet surface.

The requirements for the materials such as aluminum, titanium or invar are extreme: Daytime temperatures on Mars reach 20°C, falling to -85°C during the night. Hans-Jürgen Cramer is now holding one of the components that will soon travel to Mars in his hands in the lab. A piece of aluminum smaller than his fingernail. “It will go where no one has ever gone before,” he says reverently. The part will be installed in the ExoMars Rover. The rover will traverse the surface of Mars at a maximum speed of 100 meters per hour. A total of 18 solar-powered motors will drive it. The rover is also equipped with 27 sensors and a drill that can take rock samples from up to 2 meters below the surface for analysis. “We have to ensure that there are no cracks in the components,” explains Cramer. He and his team coat the material in a fluorescent testing agent that penetrates into even the finest cracks. Any flaws are visible under UV light.

The contract from OHB is not the first. For 10 years, employees from TÜV SÜD who inspect nuclear power plants, for example, have been working for aerospace companies. A job that Hans-Jürgen Cramer still finds exciting. And some day he might even hold a component in his hand that touched Mars.

The ExoMars Rover still needs to pass tests here on earth. Then it should land on Mars and explore it in 2018. Temperatures ranging from 20°C during the day to -85°C at night await it. TÜV SÜD is testing the Rover’s components.
Photo: ESA

The landing module is ready to be mounted on the orbiter at the Thales Alenia Space lab in Cannes.
Photo: ESA

The extremely heat-resistant front side of the EDM landing module.
Photo: ESA

Even the smallest components are covered in a protective coating due to the expected heat load.
Photo: TÜV SÜD

Terrain conditions that precisely reflect the surface of Mars are simulated at the testing range in Stevenage, England to test the ExoMars Rover. The Rover is also equipped with a drill that can take rock samples from up to 2 meters below the surface.
Photo: ESA