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Lunar Robots Test Their Mettle on Italy's Mount Etna

Mount Etna in Sicily is a test bed for lunar robots ahead of a future mission to the moon.

Image: Scientists from German Aerospace Center test robots on Italy's Mount Etna on July 2. ::  /
Scientists from German Aerospace Center test robots on Italy's Mount Etna on July 2. Antonio Parrinello / Reuters
Scientists from German Aerospace Center test robots on Italy's Mount Etna on July 2. Antonio Parrinello / Reuters

A robot wheels across a rocky, windswept landscape that looks like the surface of some distant planet from a science fiction film. But it is not in outer space, it's on the slopes of Europe's most active volcano.

Mount Etna, in Sicily, is a test bed for the approximately three-foot high, four-wheeled machine ahead of a future mission to the moon. It is being conducted by the German Aerospace Centre, the agency which runs Germany's space program.

Image::An initial robotic testing phase has nearly been completed on the Piano del Lago area of the volcano. |||[object Object]
An initial robotic testing phase has nearly been completed on the Piano del Lago area of the volcano. Reuters

The program has enlisted experts from Germany, Britain, the United States and Italy to research ROBEX (Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments) with the aim of improving robotic equipment that will be used in space.

"This is aimed at simulating a future, hypothetical landing mission on the moon or Mars and they use a lot of robots which are there to transport and install different instruments", said Boris Behncke, a volcanologist from the National Vulcanology Institute in Catania, near Mount Etna.

Scientists also hope to use the robots to explore the depths of Mount Etna and relay back useful technical data on seismic movement. The techniques learnt on Etna would then be deployed in lunar missions or in the exploration of Mars.

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