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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
Scientists lend mission an arm
Aberystwyth scientist Dr David Barnes with the robotic arm bound for Mars
The robotic arm will be tested in severe Martian conditions
A robotic arm made by scientists in Aberystwyth is set to play a crucial part in a space mission aiming to search for life on Mars.

The arm is part of the European Space Agency's Mars Express Satellite mission which will be launched from Kazakhstan on 2 June and is expected to land on Mars on Christmas Day.

The Beagle 2 mission features a range of miniaturised scientific instruments which will carry out experiments, including analysis of soil and rock samples collected from the surface of Mars.

Crucial to the mission is the robotic arm - made of titanium and carbon fibre - which is designed to collect samples and place them in the relevant scientific instruments inside the landing craft.

There is also the knowledge that the failure of the mechanical arm would effectively mean the end of the mission
Dr Dave Barnes, scientist

The successful operation of the arm, which weighs just 2.4 kg and has a reach of about a metre, will depend on the work of the Space Robotics Group at the Department of Computer Science at University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The group will be based at the National Space Centre in Leicester for the duration of the mission which will last for six months after landing on Mars.

Dust storms

Led by Dr Dave Barnes, the Aberystwyth team has built a simulated computer model of Beagle 2.

Because information takes about five minutes to travel from Earth to Mars, operating the arm in real time will be impossible.

To overcome this problem, daily tasks which will be tested on the virtual model before being sent to the real Beagle 2 on Mars.

"Unlike industrial robots which are typically heavy and solid, the arm on Beagle 2 is lightweight and has a tendency to flex when it is fully extended," said Dr Barnes.

The robotic arm will have to contend with Martian conditions that can be quite severe, with dust storms featuring wind speeds up to 30 metres per second.

Temperatures on the Red Planet can range from minus100 degrees Celsius at night to just below freezing during the day.

The mission should land on Mars on Christmas Day

"There is also the knowledge that the failure of the mechanical arm would effectively mean the end of the mission," said Dr Barnes.

"For this reason we have undertaken a rigorous testing and rehearsal programme and tried to cater for all the possible problems the arm could encounter," he added.

The team will also be looking carefully at robot survivability and longevity.

"The journey to Mars is hazardous in itself. not least the risks at lift-off and landing," said Dr Barnes.

"Parachutes and inflatable bags should protect Beagle 2 as it lands, but even then the forces it will experience will be similar to a television falling off the kitchen table and on to the floor."

How the robot survives should give an unique insight into how space robots fare in hostile environments.

Information from the Mars project will be fed into other research programmes at Aberystwyth where the group will look at how future robots could diagnose and repair their own damage.

The Aberystwyth team features in a two-part documentary on the Beagle 2 project which is due to be screened on BBC2 at 1120 BST on 2 and 3 June.

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