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Scientists Recreate Mars - In Hertfordshire
The surface of Mars has been recreated in Hertfordshire as part of European efforts to send a rover to the red planet in search of life.
The 30 metre-wide test centre at the Airbus Defence and Space site in Stevenage looks like a giant sandpit and has been created using rocks from DIY shops, but is part of the £1.2bn joint European Space Agency's Exomars mission due for launch in 2018.
It aims to prove for the first time if there really is, or ever has been, life on Mars.
Justine Byrne, from Airbus Defence and Space, said: "If there is life on Mars, there is life pretty much throughout the universe and that would have a big impact on mankind as a whole."
The 'Mars Yard' will be used to train the prototype robots to operate by themselves, so once the final rover lands on Mars it can navigate independently across the Martian landscape for two days at a time.
Abbie Hutty, from the ExoMars Rover Vehicle Team, told Sky News: "It's vital the robot will be able to work alone because of the time it takes to send commands from Earth."
She added: "We need to make sure that our rovers have the capabilities that we expect of them so we know what inclines they can safely traverse; what size rocks they can safely climb over; so we have hard stops in our programming of exactly what we will and won't let it do when it's climbing autonomously over the surface of Mars."
In August 2012 Nasa's Curiosity rover touched down on the red planet and has been studying whether the conditions are right for anything to survive there.
But the European effort will go further. It will be able to use radar and drill down up to two metres to spot signs of life, both past and present. This life-detecting capability could prove a major breakthrough.
Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has suggested creating colonies on Mars could be the next step - with earth so heavily populated and resources stretched.
Asked if this Exomars mission could be a big step towards that, Justin Byrne, from Airbus, said: "The rover has about 10 instruments on, so some of them are analysing the chemistry of the atmosphere, what gases there are that we would have to change to a breathing atmosphere, and it also looks below the surface for water, the other vital ingredient for life.
"So it will have an important impact on looking at the sustainability of humans on that planet".
The Exomars mission will launch in 2018 and will take 218 Martian days - that's just over six earth months.