With little moisture and no vegetation, the rock-covered Atacama Desert does a great job of mimicking Mars.
    
The team members have explored the area to select a suitable site for testing, flying a drone to produce an aerial map, ESA said.
    
The Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, field trial is gaining experience in remotely operating a Mars rover prototype equipped with scientific instruments.
    
ESA has assembled an international industrial team for the trial, which takes place in the Mars-like Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth.
    
"During the past few days we have been busy preparing for the actual trial," said Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the testing for ESA.
    
"Our team geologist Derek Pullan of the University of Leicester has been exploring the area looking for similar sites to the kind of Martian locations we would employ the same instruments on. The local team settled on a consensus choice – which we have christened 'SAFER Valley'," he said.
    
The scientific instruments used in the trial are designed to help search for the best location to drill down to collect subsurface samples on Mars.
    
Sheltered from surface radiation and harsh oxidizing chemicals, such samples may contain signs of past or present life.
    
ESA's 2018 ExoMars mission is acting as the "reference mission" for the trial. The rover vehicle used for the trial, called 'Bridget', is provided by Astrium Stevenage in the UK.
    
A trio of prototype ExoMars rover instruments was fitted to Bridget. The panoramic camera provides stereo 3D terrain imagery, the close-up camera works like a geologist's hand-lens for high-resolution imaging, and the radar peers through soil for a detailed 3D view of the shallow subsurface beneath the rover.
    
Before the rover had been deployed in the field, panoramic images were sent to the control centre. Looking at them along with a digital elevation map, the remote control team had to make their first decision on the path to be taken by the rover.

(Agencies)

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