The UK Space Agency is announcing Pounds 10.5M for the development of instruments to search for signs of past or present life on Mars. The instruments are part of the scientific payload on the ExoMars rover to be launched in 2018 as part of a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and US space agency NASA. ExoMars is a flagship project in the UK Space Agency’s science and exploration programme.
A two-step programme, the adventure begins in 2016 when NASA will launch an ESA-led orbiter to try to understand the origin and distribution of trace gases in the atmosphere of the Red Planet. In particular, it aims to explain why methane – a gas which scientists know should be destroyed in the atmosphere within a few hundred years – seems to be continuously forming at certain places on the planet.
The orbiter will also release an experimental probe which will make a fiery descent into the thin Martian atmosphere and use its on-board rockets to demonstrate Europe’s ability to make a controlled landing on another planet.
Then in 2018, NASA will land ESA’s ExoMars rover alongside a NASA rover. Thanks to funding from the UK Space Agency, the rover vehicle for ExoMars is being designed and tested by leading UK space company EADS Astrium at its facility in Stevenage, Hertfordshire under a multi-million pound contract.
The ExoMars rover is a robotic scientist which will search for evidence of past and present life and study the local Martian environment to understand when and where conditions that could have supported the development of life may have prevailed.
Unlike previous US rovers, ExoMars will carry a radar able to search beneath it for scientifically promising locations under the surface and a drill to extract samples from 2 m down that will be fed to its on-board laboratory.
The UK is leading on developing two of the nine instruments (the Life Marker Chip and the Panoramic Camera) on the rover and has a major involvement in two other instruments (the Raman Laser Spectrometer and the X-Ray diffactometer).
David Willetts, Universities and Science Minister, said, “The UK’s world-leading technology will play a major role in this international ExoMars project. Our scientists will expand our knowledge of the red planet and help generate applications for these technologies here at home to benefit society and the economy. It’s exciting to see UK engineers working on the most ambitious Mars mission ever attempted.”
The Life Marker Chip is a highly innovative instrument using techniques from the world of medical diagnostics and is designed to detect the presence of organic compounds that might suggest the rover has found past or present life. UK involvement comes from the University of Leicester, Cranfield University and Imperial College London. The leader of the project (the so-called Principal Investigator) is Prof Mark Sims from the University of Leicester.
The Panoramic Camera will be the eyes of the rover. It will help guide the rover and be used by geologists to understand the history and structure of Mars. This will help choose the best locations to use the drill to acquire samples. Led by planetary scientist Professor Andrew Coates from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College London, it also involves robotics expert Professor Dave Barnes at the University of Aberystwyth.
The Raman Laser Spectrometer uses a very sensitive technique called Raman spectroscopy to diagnose the internal structure of molecules so that scientists can understand what sort of minerals and organic compounds the rover is studying. The UK team is led by Dr Ian Hutchinson from Leicester University, while Professor Howell Edwards of Bradford University is the Science Team Coordinator. The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, Oxfordshire is also a major contributor to this programme, which is led by Spain.
The X-Ray Diffractometer will study the structure of minerals already known to exist on Mars such as clays, carbonates and sulphates and also determine whether these have been subjected to alteration processes by water and have the potential to harbour life. Dr Ian Hutchinson and Dr Richard Ambrosi of Leicester University have an important role in the development of the detector array for this instrument and Dr Hutchinson is the Deputy Principal Investigator for the instrument, which is led by Italy.
Breakdown of funding: Life Marker Chip – Pounds 4.8M Panoramic Camera- Pounds 2.7M X-Ray Diffractometer – Pounds 1.1M Raman Laser Spectrometer – Pounds 1.9M
Listed below are just a few examples of the programme’s spin-outs in fields ranging from human mobility to environmental resources.
Technology developed for ExoMars will help to clean and extract oil deposits in less time – and using less water – than current methods. Two-thirds of the Earth’s petroleum lies in deposits such as oil sands which are difficult to retrieve. They are usually mined and extracted using a hot water and flotation step but the process leaves substantial amounts of water, contaminated by organic compounds, sitting in settling pools for years. ExoMars scientists at Imperial College London (Prof. Mark Sephton) in conjunction with University of Leicester and Cranfield University as part of the LMC project came up with an innovative solution. State-of-the-art components for detecting organic matter on Mars require water-based solvents to extract ‘molecular fossils’ from rocks. The extraction uses an advanced surfactant technology that is readily transferable to terrestrial applications and can reduce the time needed for the water recycling process to days or weeks. These surfactants also scavenge organic compounds from water and are so environmentally benign they are actually edible. The Life Marker Chip (LMC) instrument has been developed from advanced medical diagnostics technology that can detect the presence of disease agents and antibodies. It is designed to detect trace levels of multiple organic molecular targets – biomarkers of life – in samples of Martian rock and soil while at the same time operating in extreme environments and has been developed for ExoMars by scientists at the University of Leicester, Cranfield University (Prof. David Cullen) and Imperial College London, The LMC can also detect molecular pollutants, leading to a number of possible uses within the environmental sector, as well as security applications through detecting illicit drugs and chemical or biological agents. Magna Parva Ltd, based in Leicester, is applying engineering know-how gained from ExoMars to a number of different challenges. These include modifying the design of beverage cans so that less material is used during manufacture. The company’s work with a global beverage can maker could allow raw material costs to be reduced by 12% – a huge potential impact since the global consumption of canned beverages alone is around 270 billion units each year. Apart from possible annual savings of around Pounds 100 million in ten years time, the innovation also benefits the environment. Magna Parva was shortlisted for the Lord Stafford Award for Innovation in Development in 2009. Robotic technology intended for Mars could soon be helping to transport passengers and goods at airport terminals on Earth. A consortium of academics and industry, led by Wiltshire-based technology company company SciSys, successfully demonstrated an autonomous Mars rover prototype and adapted the system for use in airports. It will allow people with reduced mobility to use smart devices to remotely request transportation. The underlying control software was the result of STFC-funded work and a prototype has been developed, courtesy of the EU sponsored FP6 programme. This was demonstrated in a live trial in December 2009 at Portugal’s Faro airport.