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This transforming rover can explore the toughest terrain

This transforming rover can explore the toughest terrain
The DuAxel rover is seen here participating in field tests in the Mojave Desert. The four-wheeled rover is composed of two Axel robots. One part anchors itself in place while the other uses a tether to explore otherwise inaccessible terrain. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J.D. Gammell

A rover trundles over rocky terrain, its four metal wheels clattering along until they encounter a seemingly insurmountable hazard: a steep slope. Down below is a potential trove of science targets. With a typical rover, the operators would need to find another target, but this is DuAxel, a robot built for situations exactly like this.


The rover is actually made of a pair of two-wheeled rovers, each called Axel. To divide and conquer, the rover stops, lowers its chassis and anchors it to the ground before essentially splitting in two. With the rear half of DuAxel (short for “dual-Axel”) firmly in place, the forward half undocks and rolls away on a single axle. All that connects the two halves now is a tether that unspools as the lead axle approaches the hazard and rappels down the slope, using instruments stowed in its wheel hub to study a scientifically attractive location that would normally be out of reach.

This scenario played out last fall during a field test in the Mojave Desert, when a small team of engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California put the modular rover through a series of challenges to test the versatility of its design.

“DuAxel performed extremely well in the field, successfully demonstrating its ability to approach a challenging terrain, anchor, and then undock its tethered Axel rover,” said Issa Nesnas, a robotics technologist at JPL. “Axel then autonomously maneuvered down steep and rocky slopes, deploying its instruments without the necessity of a robotic arm.”

A flexible rover that has both ability to travel long distances and rappel down hard-to-reach areas of scientific interest has undergone a field test in the Mojave Desert in California to showcase its versatility. Composed of two Axel robots, DuAxel is designed to explore crater walls, pits, scarps, vents and other extreme terrain on the moon, Mars and beyond. Credit: JPL/NASA

The idea behind creating two single-axle rovers that can combine into one with a central payload is to maximize versatility: The four-wheeled configuration lends itself to driving great distances across rugged landscapes; the two-wheeled version offers a nimbleness that larger rovers cannot.

“DuAxel opens up access to more extreme terrain on planetary bodies such as the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and possibly some icy worlds, like Jupiter’s moon Europa,” added Nesnas.

The flexibility was built with crater walls, pits, scarps, vents, and other extreme terrain on these diverse worlds in mind. That’s because on Earth, some of the best locations to study geology can be found in rocky outcrops and on cliff faces, where many layers of the past are neatly exposed. They’re hard enough to reach here, let alone on other celestial bodies.

The rover’s mobility and ability to access extreme locations is an

Rappelling NASA rover could split in two to explore Mars’ deep craters

NASA JPL took the DuAxel out for a test run in the Mojave Desert.


NASA/JPL-Caltech/J.D. Gammell

NASA’s car-size Mars rovers are awesome, versatile machines capable of traversing rugged terrain. But they’re not made to descend down the sides of craters. For that, NASA would need something like its DuAxel prototype rover, a wild concept that is two rovers in one.

When all together, DuAxel is a four-wheeled rover. The rear can anchor itself to the ground while the front goes free on two wheels. A tether holds the pieces together while the front section rappels down a steep slope. This could work well for exploring currently inaccessible crater walls on Mars.

NASA put a DuAxel prototype through its paces in the Mojave Desert in California. “DuAxel performed extremely well in the field, successfully demonstrating its ability to approach a challenging terrain, anchor, and then undock its tethered Axel rover,” robotics technologist Issa Nesnas said in a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Tuesday.

A video shows the clever rover in action and how it can use onboard instruments to get a close look at what’s under its wheels.

One of the motivations for developing DuAxel is to one day get a closer look at enigmatic dark streaks called recurring slope lineae that appear on the side of some martian craters. Scientists are trying to figure out if these have a watery origin.

The craters are too steep for a rover like Curiosity or Perseverance (which is currently on its way to Mars), but a transforming rappelling machine like DuAxel could handle the challenge.

It’s not just Mars science that could benefit from the plucky little rover design. “DuAxel opens up access to more extreme terrain on planetary bodies such as the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and possibly some icy worlds, like Jupiter’s moon Europa,” said Nesnas.   

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ESA’s force-feedback rover controlled from a nation away

ESA’s force-feedback rover controlled from a nation away
A controller in Germany operated ESA’s gripper-equipped Interact rover around a simulated moonscape at the Agency’s technical heart in the Netherlands, to practice retrieving geological samples. Credit: ESA– SJM Photography

A controller in Germany operated ESA’s gripper-equipped Interact rover around a simulated moonscape at the Agency’s technical heart in the Netherlands, to practice retrieving geological samples. At the same time a smaller Germany-based rover interacted with ESA’s rover as if together at the same site—in a dress rehearsal for a robotic test campaign to the Moon-like volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, scheduled for next year.


The scenario behind this week’s testing is that in the future, astronauts aboard the Lunar Gateway in space will be able to operate rovers on the surface of the Moon, using force-feedback controls—like a high-end gaming joystick that pushes back on its user—to experience a realistic sense of touch comparable to actually being there.

The concept was proven in principle during last year’s Analog-1 campaign, undertaken by ESA’s Human Robot Interaction Laboratory, with the support of the DLR German Aerospace Center’s Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich.

Analog-1 concluded with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano in orbit aboard the International Space Station operating the Interact rover on the ground, guided by high-fidelity vision and touch to perform a geological sampling exercise.

“Our original plan was to follow up Analog-1 with a genuine geological field survey, on Mount Etna in Italy,” explains ESA robotic engineer Thomas Krueger, heading the HRI Lab.

“This survey was planned as part of DLR’s ARCHES—Autonomous Robotic Networks to Help Modern Societies—initiative, to develop heterogeneous, autonomous and interconnected robotic systems in the context of a real application.”

ESA’s force-feedback rover controlled from a nation away
A controller in Germany operated ESA’s gripper-equipped Interact rover around a simulated moonscape at the Agency’s technical heart in the Netherlands, to practice retrieving geological samples. The rover has two cameras, one mounted on a manoeuvrable arm and the other on the gripper at the end of another arm. Credit: ESA – SJM Photography

“Unfortunately ongoing COVID-19 restrictions make this impossible for now. Instead we had the idea of bringing the rovers together on a virtual basis: we set up a common network infrastructure to make them think they are together even though they are not—like a robotic version of a teleconference—to be a full-scale dress rehearsal for our Mount Etna trip which has now been rescheduled for next summer.”

The test culminated in the Interact rover being jointly operated from DLR more than 660 km away, along with the European Space Operations Centre, ESOC, in Darmstadt, Germany, helping to to select and retrieve geological samples—overseeing the activities in ‘space’.

“These kinds of experiments are very important for us to practice and gain operations experience, which is essential for ESA’s future robotic Moon missions,” states ESOC’s operations engineer Thorsten Graber.

Adopting the role of mission control, the ESOC side employed higher-level commanding and visualization tools developed by the Trasys company.

ESA’s force-feedback rover controlled from a nation away
A controller in Germany operated ESA’s gripper-equipped Interact rover around a simulated moonscape

Perseverance Rover will peer beneath Mars’ surface

Perseverance Rover Will Peer Beneath Mars' Surface
Perseverance’s Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) uses radar waves to probe the ground, revealing the unexplored world that lies beneath the Martian surface. The first ground-penetrating radar set on the surface of Mars, RIMFAX can provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures down to at least 30 feet (10 meters) underground. In doing so, the instrument will reveal hidden layers of geology and help find clues to past environments on Mars, especially those with conditions necessary for supporting life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/FFI

After touching down on the Red Planet Feb. 18, 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will scour Jezero Crater to help us understand its geologic history and search for signs of past microbial life. But the six-wheeled robot won’t be looking just at the surface of Mars: The rover will peer deep below it with a ground-penetrating radar called RIMFAX.


Unlike similar instruments aboard Mars orbiters, which study the planet from space, RIMFAX will be the first ground-penetrating radar set on the surface of Mars. This will give scientists much higher-resolution data than space-borne radars can provide while focusing on the specific areas that Perseverance will explore. Taking a more focused look at this terrain will help the rover’s team understand how features in Jezero Crater formed over time.

Short for Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment, RIMFAX can provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures down to at least 30 feet (10 meters) underground. In doing so, the instrument will reveal hidden layers of geology and help find clues to past environments on Mars, especially those that may have provided the conditions necessary for supporting life.

“We take an image of the subsurface directly beneath the rover,” said Svein-Erik Hamran, the instrument’s principal investigator, with the University of Oslo in Norway. “We can do a 3-D model of the subsurface—of the different layers—and determine the geological structures underneath.”

While Mars is a frigid desert today, scientists suspect that microbes may have lived in Jezero during wetter times billions of years ago and that evidence of such ancient life may be preserved in sediments in the crater. Information from RIMFAX will help pinpoint areas for deeper study by instruments on the rover that search for chemical, mineral, and textural clues found within rocks that may be signs of past microbial life. Ultimately, the team will collect dozens of drill-core samples with Perseverance, seal them in tubes that will be deposited on the surface for return to Earth by future missions. That way, these first samples from another planet can be studied in laboratories with equipment too large to take to Mars.

Perseverance Rover will peer beneath Mars' surface
A test model of the RIMFAX instrument — aboard the trailer behind the snow mobile — undergoes field testing in Svalbard, Norway. Credit: FFI

Traveling back in time

Scientists believe the 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) Jezero Crater formed when a large object collided with Mars, kicking up rocks from deep in the planet’s crust. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled into the crater,