While Mars may have come to earth last week, the red planet still holds a huge fascination for the human race. NASA's next trip up there will include the large-ish Mars Science Laboratory, and it's already mooting some crazy ideas about sending astronauts up there on a one-way love mission (Looking forward to the spin-off book, no doubt called Men are from Mars, Women are from, er, Mars.)
But what of Europe's ambitions towards the red planet? The Mars Express mission blasted off from Kazakhstan in 2003, but its landing craft, the British-built Beagle 2 ended up M.I.A., lost in a crater somewhere, perhaps. However, you can't knock the Europeans for trying. Its ExoMars mission is scheduled to launch in 2018 off the back of a US Atlas rocket (less space race, more space saunter, it seems) and this is its latest Mars rover.
I'd like you all to say a big DVICE Howdy to Bridget. Bridget looks a bit like the desks of All The Nerds I Have Known — that's three laptops, a couple of odd-shaped webcams, all crammed on a table top that's sloping dangerously, propped up by copies of 101011100000001010 Binary Jokes: Vol 1001. Actually, the word "webcam" is a little disingenuous. Bridget will be toting a pair of front-mounted navigation cameras, a quartet of cameras at its corners to avoid "hazard avoidance" — that's so it doesn't end up like Beagle 2, or the girl with the runty white dog in Harper's Island. Add to that a pair of scientific cameras with stereoscopic vision, and a hi-res camera for
its holiday snaps zooming in on areas of interest, and you realise that Bridget is up there with Jaime Sommers on the hawkeye front.
Anyway, despite the fact that she will be turning up rather late to the party*, Bridget's job is to send back detailed 3D reconstructions of the surface of the planet. For now, a quarry in Bedfordshire, about 50 miles north of London, is her natural habitat, because of its similarity to Martian terrain. Lester Waugh, lead engineer for EADS Atrium, the firm behind the development of Bridget, sees their mission as a bit like putting Google Street View on Mars. "You can go down to street level and explore the environment," he says, "so that when you drive into the place, you know what's going on there."
The biggest problem the mission faces is the quantity of data that Bridget can send back to earth, as well as the speed with which it can process instructions and bounce the info back to mission control. ExoMars is also still waiting for the European Space Agency states to sign off the plan — as well as its budget.
*Sorry love, we're all out of champagne and canapes. I can get you a Coors Light and a cheese sarnie if you want, though.