NASA, ESA pick key Mars joint mission instruments

NASA, ESA expect to launch Mars mission in 2016

Scientists at NASA and the European Space Agency have picked the all-important instruments for their joint Mars mission set to blast off in 2016.

The mission instruments onboard ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will focus on nailing down components in the Martian atmosphere -- in particular looking for methane because mapping methane will let scientists investigate whether or not Mars is a living planet, researchers stated. 

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According to the ESA, more than 90% of methane around Earth is produced by living organisms. The recent detection of plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars is of great interest because of its potential biological origin, though other explanations may also be possible.

The next ExoMars mission, scheduled for 2018, consists of a number of projects including Europe's entry, descent and landing demonstration vehicle with a drill and an American rover capable of caching selected samples for potential future return to Earth.

NASA's contribution in 2016 includes a trace gas mapping and imaging scientific payload for the orbiter and the launch and, in 2018 a rover, the EDLS, and rockets for the launch.  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 2m down that will be fed to its on-board laboratory, the ESA stated.

The selected instruments for the 2016 mission were judged to have the best scientific value and lowest risk, and will be developed by international teams of scientists and engineers on both sides of the Atlantic, the ESA stated.  They include:

  • Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer (MATMOS): n infrared spectrometer to detect very low concentrations of molecular constituents of the atmosphere.
  • High-resolution solar occultation and nadir spectrometer (SOIR/NOMAD): An infrared spectrometer to detect trace constituents in the atmosphere and to map their location on the surface.
  • ExoMars Climate Sounder (EMCS): An infrared radiometer to provide daily global measurements of dust, water vapor and chemical species in the atmosphere to aid the analysis of the spectrometer data.
  • High-resolution Stereo Color Imager (HiSCI): A camera to provide 4-color stereo imaging at 2 m resolution per pixel over an 8.5 km swathe.
  • Mars Atmospheric Global Imaging Experiment (MAGIE): A wide-angle multi-spectral camera to provide global images in support of the other instruments.

NASA has its own Mars projects going as well.  The agency's wide-ranging Mars Science Laboratory should launch in 2011. NASA says its next generation Mars rover, Curiosity, will feature X-ray equipment that will let it more rapidly identify areas on the red planet that may have supported life.  The Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument will identify the minerals in samples of powdered rock or soil that the rover's robotic arm will deliver to an input funnel.

According to NASA, CheMin will use X-ray diffraction, what some call the gold standard for mineralogy, to identify minerals. Some minerals detectable by CheMin, such as phosphates, carbonates, sulfate and silica, can help preserve microbe biosignatures, NASA says. Other minerals that CheMin could detect might also have implications about past conditions favorable to life and to preservation of biosignatures, NASA stated.

Curiosity's 10 science instruments are about 15 times heavier than the five-instrument payload on NASA's Mars rovers Spirit or Opportunity.  Some will provide quicker evaluations of rocks when the rover drives to a new location, helping the science team choose which rocks to examine more thoroughly with CheMin and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) experiment. SAM can identify organic compounds. Imaging information about the context and textures of rocks will augment information about the rocks' composition, NASA said.

NASA calls the laboratory, which is expected to operate for at least two years, the biggest astrobiology mission to Mars ever. The Mars Science Laboratory rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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