Revolutionary navigation system for future Mars rovers
08 Dec 2011




BAe Robotic rover being tested on the simulated martian landscape

​​BAe Robotic rover being tested on the simulated martian landscape


Press Release: 8th December 2011

An autonomous navigation system that will enable a future planetary rover vehicle to be in complete control of its own actions as it explores the surface of Mars is being designed by top-calibre scientists and engineers at STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The team from the UK, France and Canada are joining forces to design 'Seeker' as part of the European Space Agency (link opens in a new window)'s (ESA's) StarTiger initiative, which tackles specific space-related challenges through targeted projects with fixed timeframes. Details of Seeker's development were unveiled today (Thursday 8 December 2011) on the day STFC's RAL Space is holding its 7th Appleton Space conference.

The high level conference organised by RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) Space, brings together leading figures from the global space industry to share the very latest developments in current and future space exploration; this year's programme features a video address from the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science. The StarTiger-Seeker project, led by RAL Space, is a seven month project that will see the team work intensively day and night to design a navigation system that, unlike previous systems, will enable a rover to navigate around Mars totally independently, covering at least 1km a day. The Seeker navigation system will allow a rover to react better to its surroundings and undertake experiments in more locations, enabling our understanding of the Red Planet to take a major leap forward.

Designed for use on future missions to Mars, Seeker will perform a range of key actions completely unaided by Mission Control or by GPS-type technology. These include:

  • identifying the precise location of the rover on Mars;
  • identifying promising scientific opportunities;
  • long-range pinpointing of particular sites to visit;
  • detecting and avoiding hazards;
  • navigating back to previously visited sites.

It is expected that the Seeker technology will also have potential applications here on Earth, particularly in inhospitable environments.

Robotic rover (indie) being tested on the simulated martian landscape at STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory  
Robotic rover "indie" being tested on the simulated martian landscape

The Seeker team includes experts from RAL Space, SciSys (link opens in a new window), BAe Systems (link opens in a new window), Roke Manor Research (link opens in a new window) (all from the UK), LAAS (link opens in a new window) (France) and MDA Space & Robotics (link opens in a new window) (Canada). It will apply leading-edge skills in autonomy and intelligence, electronic sensing, image processing and other disciplines to tackle the huge challenges presented by the project.

Kim Ward of RAL Space, the Project Director, says: "The keys to Seeker's success will be imagination, application and team work. With radio signals to conventional rovers taking at least 30 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, Seeker's ability to work autonomously in hostile terrain will be crucial to extending our understanding of our planetary neighbour."

David Willetts said: "Space captures the imagination of so many people, and it's excellent to see UK experts playing such a significant role in the groundbreaking StarTiger initiative. The Seeker project has the potential to transform our exploration of Mars and make an important contribution to the international body of knowledge on the universe around us."

The UK Space Agency (link opens in a new window) (UKSA) was instrumental in bringing the ESA StarTiger project to the UK, through working with ESA Harwell (ESA's only UK base) and securing funding for ESA Harwell's establishment as a focus for space exploration.

Among those attending today's Appleton Space Conference are Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA, and Robert Cabana, Director of the Kennedy Space Centre (link opens in a new window) in the USA.

Also at the conference, the President of UrtheCast (link opens in a new window), Scott Larson, gave more details about RAL Space's plans to design and build two cameras that will provide the first-ever live video feeds from space. The cameras will be installed on the International Space Station now in orbit around Earth.

Notes for editors

Seeker is the first StarTiger project hosted at RAL since 2002. That project resulted in a groundbreaking terahertz camera which, through spin-out company Thruvision (link opens in a new window), led to the development of security scanners capable of detecting non-metallic objects. These scanners are now in use at airports worldwide.

To date, five rover vehicles have been sent to Mars. In the early 1970s, two Soviet missions failed. Three NASA rovers have successfully landed on Mars (Sojourner in 1997 and Spirit and Opportunity, both in 2004). Opportunity remains active on the planet's surface today.


Photograph​s of the rovers are available. Please contact the Press Office for more details


  • Lucy Stone
    Press Officer
    STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
    Tel: +44 (0)1235 445 627
    Mob: +44 (0)7920 870 125

Further information

European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (link opens in a new window) (ESA) is Europe's gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe's space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

ESA is an international organisation with 18 Member States. By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, it can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country.

RAL Space

RAL Space, based at STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, carries out an exciting range of world-class space research and technology development, has significant involvement in over 200 space missions and is at the forefront of UK Space Research.


SciSys (link opens in a new window) is a leading developer of IT services.

BAE Systems

BAE Systems (link opens in a new window) is a global defence and security company.

Roke Manor Research

Roke Manor Research (link opens in a new window) is a world-class electronics engineering company.

MDA Space and Robotics

MDA (link opens in a new window) is a world leader in space robotics.​


LAAS (link opens in a new window) is a leading research unit specialising in information science and technologies.

About STFC (link opens in a new window)

For more information please contact: RAL Space Enquiries