Space tech to be tested using continent-crossing Fiat Panda

Having previously taken part in the Panda Raid race to Morocco and back, the ‘space2ground’ team plans to perform on-board testing over the course of their epic road trip.

 An employee of Fiat performs a quality control check on the new Panda car at the Fiat plant in Pomigliano D'Arco, near Naples (photo credit: REUTERS)
An employee of Fiat performs a quality control check on the new Panda car at the Fiat plant in Pomigliano D'Arco, near Naples
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Two ESA engineers are planning to use a second-hand, two-decade-old Fiat Panda as a unique testbed for novel space technology, the car, as well as the engineers, are set to compete in the 16 000 km Mongol Rally from Europe to the Mongolian steppes in the summer of 2023.

Having previously taken part in the Panda Raid race to Morocco and back, the ‘space2ground’ team plans to perform on-board testing over the course of their epic road trip.

“Once we decided to do this, we wanted to add some extra value and carry out supporting tests for various space activities,” says small satellite specialist Cesar Bernal, working at ESA’s ESTEC technology center in the Netherlands.

“We love space and our day jobs, so are currently in contact with various ESA projects about work we might do to help them.”

“We love space and our day jobs, so are currently in contact with various ESA projects about work we might do to help them.”

Cesar Bernal

“For instance, we are discussing carrying satnav receivers to make various measurements of the various satellite navigation constellations – such as Galileo and GPS. A lot of ESA’s Galileo ground receiver testing up until now has been carried out within quite narrow geographic margins, like the few tens of kilometers between here at ESTEC along to nearby Rotterdam," Software engineer Javier Fernandez, also based at ESTEC, explained.

Panda Raid

The pair have already bought their Fiat Panda to compete in the annual Panda Raid in October 2021, which is an annual 3000 km rally through the Sahara desert finishing at Marrakesh, Morroco, reserved for first-generation 4x2 and 4x4 Fiat Pandas.

The highlight of the roughly two-week rally was driving 3000 km across Morocco’s Sahara Desert, Cesar recalls: “Navigation is based around a road book rather than a map, listing a sequence of landmarks we had to follow each day. We got lost on a couple of occasions, finding ourselves completely surrounded by towering dunes and not seeing any other cars."

The Mongol Rally planned for Summer 2023 is described as the world’s greatest road trip, across some of the emptiest territories on Earth, including a 4 000 m high mountain pass in Tajikistan. “It’s going to be hugely challenging, and a lot of fun, but we aim to be fun and useful, raising money for charity as well as space technology testing,” concludes Cesar.

"We’ll be moving across wildly varied landscapes, from built-up urban centers to more isolated mountainous or desert regions, and down to lower latitudes as well,” he added.

"We’ll be moving across wildly varied landscapes, from built-up urban centers to more isolated mountainous or desert regions, and down to lower latitudes as well.”

Cesar Bernal

“We were quite happy with the car we bought, which had 28 000 km on the clock,” comments Javier. “It is a two-wheel drive car – converting it would have cost more than getting a 4x4 version – with a less than a 1-liter engine, which is part of the Mongol rally requirements.”

Satelite testing

Another test the team is planning on performing is to take carefully geo-referenced soil samples along the incredibly long route. the Mongol rally has no prescribed course, only a beginning and an end, the test will serve as a calibration resource for ESA’s Earth-observing satellites, providing ground points to check if what the instruments in space are showing is what is actually there on the ground.

“Our room aboard is quite limited, but we are also looking at carrying onboard computer systems, test boards or sensors – it will be a bumpy, dusty ride, experiencing extremes of temperature, so our trip will be a good test of general robustness," Cesar said.

"In addition, we are talking to "internet of things" service providers, harnessing satellite technology to track the position and condition of hardware – which in this case might include the telemetry of our car as it drives, or daily images of our journey,” he explained.